- Writers Retreat
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After one reading of his debut collection of flash fiction, it comes as no surprise that Robert McVey is a not only a skilled writer but also a psychotherapist, one who’s paid emotionally detached if intellectually close attention to the idiosyncrasies of a menagerie of hauntingly disturbing, but all too human personalities.
Throughout this exhaustive roll-out of some eighty vignettes, McVey presents a series of “character studies” that parade an assortment of personalities in all their beauty and ugliness, but mostly in their ugliness. In McVey’s brand of realism, largely that which is acidic, bitter, lonely, corrosive, judgmental, emotionally abusive, neurotically self-conscious, and whatever other trait one tries desperately to mask behind smiling social niceties qualifies as truly worthy of the moniker “realism.” Frequently, one walks away from this well crafted, pinpoint-precise debut needing to wash off the oily residue of characters you’d rather not know, but are afraid you already do in your real life. Accordingly, what initially is experienced as the masterful presentation of place and character becomes something akin to enduring a person whose beauty and intellect you greatly admire but whose personal hygiene inspires a furious search for exit signs and the making of hasty retreats.
To say that McVey displays great talent is an understatement. His approach to the short story form and rigid discipline to economy at times provoke awe and rarely anything less than respect. The Harvard and Sarah Lawrence graduate’s occasional flexing of his MENSA standing in his word choices, as with “oleaginous” in the “The Meaning of Bennett Cerf,” are at times distracting, particularly when writing from a character’s interiors, but oddly befitting his already signature style. An inheritor of the canon’s indigo voices like Flannery O’Connor and Joan Didion, McVey’s ability to so clearly illustrate fully realized settings and characters in less than a page in a half is perhaps his greatest gift. That he does so eighty different times without repeating any particular character’s voice or slice of life is a triumph in craft.
McVey’s preoccupation with the obscure, tortured, morose and macabre artifacts of history, be it the terrorized child of Marie Antoinette or the “La Monstrua” of the Spanish Court, ensures McVey manages to keep some of the subjects fairly original in nature. Other illustrations appear more routine on their face, particularly in his blackened portraits of family, be it the foul-mouthed, overweight father in “Green Lights” or the Jacksonesque overbearing mother in “My Breathing Bothered My Mother,” but even here McVey finds fresh openings for a reader to voyeuristically view these sideshow characters. With so much shadowed, flashes of humor and sensitivity are welcome, however their infrequency, as with the laugh out loud ridiculousness of a teacher’s class assignment in “Melanie Klein Said,” comedy worthy of a Lewis Black stand-up bit.
Where McVey’s Achilles heel is too shiningly on display is in the frequent lack of a compelling story arc or transition. Far too often, once we’ve settled into a character and their perspective of the world, the scene is over. To be fair this is true of much flash fiction. As with the tale of the mother draining the life out of a newborn in “Sweeties Alright,” what are framed as stories are actually a series of succinct still shots observed, expressed, and sometimes judged by the character through each of their eccentric, individualized lenses and usually nothing more. McVey also has a penchant for emotional distance even as he reveals the ugly of each room peeked through with cool detachment, as if he too only wants to get so close to his own creations. His talent for the specific and immediacy is the draw, but the repetition of this feat doesn’t lend itself to page turning and there doesn’t appear to be a unifying theme, unless it’s a fragile humanity’s inhumanity to one another. Craftsmen and writing enthusiasts will dig in just to observe what McVey’s skill and vast knowledge range are able to draft next, but it is an architectural appreciation that emerges more than a love for the stories he tells. Nonetheless, what is clear from these slivers is that a master novel lives within McVey, if not several, since there are at least 60 promising opening chapters for a longer literary form out of the 80 short ones presented here.
There are fine breaks from McVey’s head space, when the writing is less cerebral and more emotionally visceral, like the two deaths of loved ones sensitively captured in “Solution” and “Adrenaline” or the maturing other woman in relationship with a bisexual married man in “Coming To Terms.” These intimacies tend to live in the latter quarter of the book as if to give the rewarded reader a reprieve from so much darkness and to reveal that the world-weary genius does indeed have a heart.
We Have a Pie
By Robert McVey
Paperback, 9781604890969, 176 pp.