Short stories went out of style when most of the magazines publishing them went kaput. Sad, because those publications allowed many now famous writers to hone their skills and eke out a living before they published their first Great American Novel.
However, rejoice oh thee who love an encapsulated tale that fits perfectly into our hectic lifestyle. Short stories are now back in vogue, and a new master of the genre has appeared on the scene: John Dwaine McKenna.
You can finish one of his “The Neversink Chronicles” stories in the time it takes to roast a chicken. But beware! Unless your family enjoys eating burnt offerings, you will have to fight the overwhelming temptation to move on to the next story.
McKenna, born in Neversink, N.Y., follows the sage advice to “write what you know.” In the preface, he provides a brief history of the small towns and hamlets around Neversink, which sits in “the heart of the Catskills Mountains.” Unfortunately, five of the seven pristine streams that flowed through the area were appropriated to create a reliable water supply for New York City. Reservoirs were built, along with “351 miles of tunnels,” to transport the water. Taking decades to complete, the project irrevocably altered the landscape; and more than 10,000 residents were displaced.
You get a sense of the close-knit communities in the first story, “Eureka Poker Night,” as the good old boys gather at Rocky O’Mara’s service station for a little gambling, drinking, “lying and bragging.” Buddy, whom the O’Mara’s “took in” after his parents died in an automobile accident, narrates a story chock full of characters that run the gamut of human behavior. McKenna’s prose is down-to-earth; yet, hypnotic – drawing you into the scene. I started searching my mind, attempting to determine where I’d read a similar writing style before.
McKenna answered my question in the very next story, “The Practice of Artful Deception,” when he incorporated a reference to “Tortilla Flat” by John Steinbeck. No author writes in a vacuum; it’s not a matter of copying, but the best writer’s work is always shaped by the literature he or she reads. While I picked up shades of Ray Bradbury in a few places and certainly Kurt Vonnegut’s off-beat humor in others, it is not farfetched to say that McKenna’s voice, style and character development were greatly influenced by Steinbeck.
The variety of tales in this book covers much of what is good and bad about American society, showing how the country has changed since the 1930s. There are gangsters hiding out in the Catskills, travelers scamming locals and an account of how race relations changed after World War II. Some are mysteries. Others will especially appeal to baby boomers with childhood memories of long hot summers and the known – but never so vividly acknowledged – impact of the Vietnam War.
While the environmental consequences of New York City’s need for drinking water threads through the book, the message isn’t preachy or dominant. Instead, McKenna allows readers to draw their own conclusions.
Every story in “The Neversink Chronicles” is enjoyable, but I especially liked the ones about Rhyolite Mountain. McKenna writes, “In the far ten-mile distance, the mountain looks like God’s own heap of diamond dust as it winks and glitters with ten million points of light.” It is home to Oliver and Irma Varley and their 18 children. The family is artfully entwined into five stories that could make a nice mini-novel all on its own. But I won’t give away anymore of the mountain’s secrets for fear of being a spoiler.
Appropriately, the last story, “The Destiny of Sky Riders,” takes place in McKenna’s adult home – Colorado – with a link back to Neversink. Although you could say it occurs in the Twilight Zone.
Normally, I limit my reviews to one per author. McKenna’s books have become an exception to that rule. Readers may remember my review of “The Whim-Wham Man” in the September 2013 issue of The New Falcon Herald. But after becoming so enthralled by “The Neversink Chronicles,” I couldn’t resist letting others know about it.
McKenna’s “Colorado Noir,” another collection of short stories – most of which take place in Colorado Springs – is good, too (expect a review later this year). In the meantime, read “The Neversink Chronicles.” It deserves to be on “The New York Times Best Sellers” list. Let’s help put it there!