Stories by Adrian Van Young, The Man Who Noticed Everything, Black Lawrence Press
Reviewed by Keith McCleary
“Hard Water,” the opening story in Adrian Van Young’s debut collection, begins uneasily in a strange valley of intersecting narrative tropes. A curmudgeonly rancher is visited one spring by a young drifter looking for work. The rancher, hardened and misanthropic, is more interested in reading Byron than knowing his neighbors; he sees the edge of his property as “the lip of the world.” But the drifter stirs a fascination in him that is by turns admiring and sinister.
“For a scorched, airless moment, I can only stare at him,” the rancher tells us. “I see that his eyes are not only uneven, but different colors altogether.” Already we are being given several sets of cues: the postmodern Western, and even the cowboy love story, are familiar settings for modern fiction. But there is also something seedy, and even unnatural, at work in the text. The two men’s world first curves from the erotic into the pornographic, and then into the noir, as the characters reveal not only villainous tendencies, but decidedly real and vulnerable ones. As their relationship unravels, the farm itself rises against them as a physical, near-sentient force. A Cthulian horror burrows through its soil, with motives as complex as those of the men above.
In the continually festering rift in fiction between the high and the low, there is often an insistence that the issue of mixing the two has been talked to death—that we are Over It Already, and Really, We’re Fine With It Now. As fully-functioning, multimodal consumers of modern culture, we might insist, we are past drawing a line between literary and genre fiction—between the kinds of writing we are allowed to say we like, and the kinds we’re only allowed to say we like if we also say we know we shouldn’t.
But such assurances are tenuous. Between one camp of readers interested in language play, believably ambiguous characterization, and a certain level of political rhetoric, and a second camp who simply wants themselves told a good old-fashioned yarn, the stories in The Man Who Noticed Everything create a zealous anarchy. Any bid for metafictional self-awareness at the act of bringing high and low fiction together (the kind of thing we count on, to let us know that this is okay) is moot in the face of the collection’s sheer narrative rigor. Perhaps the strangeness in these stories is that they refuse to celebrate their strangeness; more uniquely, they choose simply to exist.
In each of Van Young’s worlds he establishes a ruleset we should be comfortable with, simply through tone and aesthetic—the American gothic, the coming-of-age tale, the historical melodrama—and then immediately hands us characters and voices and ideas to complicate that comfort. His vessels—among them, the lonely urbanite who might be a secret king in “King Dodd”, and a young man on a spirit quest through the Civil War in “The Elder Brother Washing His Hands”—are incapable of maintaining the status quo of their genres because their worlds, like them, are real, confusing, and constantly shifting.
Even “Albino Deer,” the collection’s simplest and most straightforward story, is not merely interested in the modern hunter; nor is it a hunter’s tale gone predictably awry. Instead it focuses on the nebulous possibilities of what could happen when men lose themselves in the woods; in the guilt leading from a “clean kill” down a darker path, and the ways in which potential violence is more worrying than the genuine act. “If you’re coming with us just to teach us a lesson,” says one hunter to another, “Then I’d advise you to turn back now.”
Like us, the people populating The Man Who Noticed Everything are affected by issues of history, race, sexuality and gender; each choice they make is dense with complication. But here, they are just as easily troubled by the manifestations of their woes in ways both natural and supernatural—by crimes of passion, and by unknowable doom. That these characters change throughout the stories they inhabit informs their humanity and nuance. They confound the question of whether they are protagonists or antagonists, objects or subjects, and if these categories are even relevant.
Instead, it’s more important that these people, within the impeccably crafted landscapes built around them, expand the definition of what we mean when we say that this-could-have-really-happened. Theirs are stories that are actively happening, regardless; theirs are stories that are true.
Adrian Van Young teaches writing at Boston College, Boston University and Grub Street Writers Inc., a creative writing non- profit. At various points in time, he has also taught writing and literature at the Calhoun School, 826 NYC and the Buckingham, Browne and Nichols School. He received his B.A. in English from Vassar College, and his MFA in fiction from Columbia University, where he formerly taught as well. In 2008, he was the recipient of a Henfield Foundation Prize and was nominated by Columbia’s faculty for inclusion in the Best New American Voices 2010 Anthology. The Man Who Noticed Everything, his first book of fiction, won Black Lawrence Press’ 2011 St. Lawrence Book Award, and is forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press, an imprint of Dzanc Books, in January 2013. He is currently in the midst of writing a historical novel based on the life of William H. Mumler, the father of spirit photography, and his clairvoyant wife, Hannah Mumler. His fiction and non- fiction have been published or are forthcoming in Lumina, Gigantic, Lacuna and The Believer. He lives in Somerville, MA with his wife Darcy.
Keith McCleary is a writer and graphic designer from New York. He is the author and illustrator of two graphic novels, Killing Tree Quarterly and Top of the Heap, from Terminal Press. His prose and comics have appeared in Heavy Metal, Flash, Jupiter 88, and Weave, and his teleplay “The Gothickers,” co-written with poet Sophia Starmack, was recently featured in the CCLaP audio series “Podcast Dreadful.” He is currently working on an ongoing comic book series, Curves & Bullets, with Eisner-nominated artist Rodolfo Ledesma. Keith is an MFA candidate at UCSD, and received his BFA in Film & TV Production from NYU, where his thesis film “Australia” won a Warner Bros Production Award in 2002.