Book Review

stories by Kevin McIlvoy
WTAW Press, 2023


A good writer can always envision the end for his characters and his books, but the exceptional artist can imagine even his own exit.

In the story “Cake All Day,” Kevin McIlvoy captures the whimsical conversation between a writer and an elderly sister-in-law living with Alzheimer’s at a senior facility. This odd couple talk about how much they enjoy cake and the eating of it in an easy yet unsentimental banter.  But McIlvoy quickly raises the stakes of his story, inserting a literally heart-stopping moment.

“This particular April First was only different than the other days because on this day his heart would not start, would crank, crank-cough, almost rev, crank, stop, go silent, go down beyond recharging in the Center’s parking lot right after his visit with Dorothy Eva during which every cell of him had been recharged with life and had seemed to hold the charge but in one gasp-laugh-cough had gone silent.”

Fiction holds an uncanny mirror to life. Kevin McIlvoy, affectionately known as “Mc” to his family, friends, and students, died on September 30, 2022, felled by a heart attack while playing his favorite pastime on the tennis courts. He was 69 years old. 

That summer, McIlvoy had put the finishing touches on this final collection Is It So? Glyphs, Glimpses and Found Novels now out from WTAW Press. Death is not far from these stories, but neither is Life itself. McIlvoy mourns his losses and fills the pages with his constant wonder and awe, the joy of being attentive to this strange world.  

McIlvoy classifies these prose pieces as glimpses, glyphs and found novels. The glimpses follow the outlines of conventional short stories while the glyphs veer more into poetry. The found novels are the shortest, with brief descriptions of objects from a deserted fictional town of Desordenada, North Carolina that suggest whole worlds. The name itself Desordenada shows McIlvoy’s trademark wordplay with echoes of “disorder” and “nada” or nothingness. 

For McIlvoy, writing fiction wasn’t about offering ready-made answers of plot or circumstance, but always asking himself the hard question – is this really so?  He tuned into the self-talk of his characters, grounding the point of view deep inside those eddying streams of thought. Rather than just clever wordplay, McIlvoy’s inventions feel truer to our experiences of Life and Death. 

With the story “In the Gilla,” the narrator returns regularly to a protected wilderness to hike and ski, resuming his odd annual conversations with the resident ranger. We see the two men, their features superimposed like ghosts over the glass plate covering the area map. The ranger gently corrects the narrator’s constant questions, even his vision trying to pinpoint trees and fire sites on the map. “You’re too small in the big picture of things at the unimaginable scale … you don’t see what you should.”

Call it a student’s revenge and a teacher’s hard-learned lesson. Turns out the forest ranger was a former student of the narrator, still smarting over the “D” he got in Freshman Composition decades before. Old age and outdoor trekking won’t bring the narrator any closer to any wisdom. He learns instead to say no to his own romantic bullshit. 

“The trails lost, buried, burned. I came in order to bring my wilderness to this wilderness. No. No to that assessment’s shapeliness, the kind of thing one writes who is the sole audience for anything he writes. I was in fact an ignorant young and lost wanderer who had become an ignorant lost and old wanderer.”

Mc once told me that true artists are comfortable with making mistakes. Ask Mc a direct question and like Zen masters of old, he would chuckle, deflect then humbly offer his thoughts. Working with students and other writers, he would offer suggestions on how to make the prose not just mundanely say the next obvious thing, but to sing, to stutter, to fall silent. 

Over his career of eight published books, McIlvoy blurred the boundaries between well-made conventional narratives and lyric flights of poetry. He gravitated toward wisdom literature, telling new parables and paradoxes, reminiscent of Basho and Zen Masters to Kafka and Borges. He was always after the kind of communication that get us closer to the unsayable.

In these short pieces, Jesus returns as a homeless man asking for a drink of water in a writer’s garden. A writer tries to describe the beauty of a goldfish in a plastic bag transported by a woman on a bus. “Passerby” is a moment-by-moment breakdown of each extra’s appearance in Gene Kelly’s signature dance in the 1952 movie musical Singing in the Rain

We get glimpses of larger plots, freeze-frames of lost time and untold stories, but mainly McIlvoy returns to his own ghosts and griefs, revenants and presences that haunt him, especially his own family members and even his nation. 

In “Let us Draw Near,” McIlvoy grabs the reader with the opening line “10 days after 9/11, my father’s heart exploded, his life collapsing in a matter of moments.” His losses only mount a few stanzas or paragraphs later with the death of his younger sister, an alcoholic who succumbs to her disease at age 52.  

We meet their presence again in “Prose Poem at Sunrise” about a father’s favorite oil painting, a bad piece of art depicting his beloved golf course. “The thing has character,” the father would insist, and we see clearly a writer trying to make a shapely piece of art as a tribute to his dad. 

McIlvoy championed what he called the literature of “fullness,”
those stories celebrating centrifugal energies that resist finding
a center. . . . His was not the conventional hero’s journey, but the
seer’s inner voyage, the act of sitting quietly, listening deeply,
noticing more closely, getting comfortable with silences and stillness. 

Grief is akin to anger, and McIlvoy isn’t afraid to explore his rage as a lifelong political activist, seeing what’s gone awry with America’s body politic in the past decade. The story “Sharpied on a damaged MAGA car windshield” takes a righteous sledgehammer to a partisan’s decorated truck. “Around my bed America was falling” continues that nightmare with a scream about “Merika” and the nation’s descent toward authoritarianism under the Trump administration.  

But the writer can also cast his compassion on the other side of the political divide. In a series of prose poems, he studies the De-Installation of a Confederate monument honoring the infamous Gen. Braxton Bragg and his family in the fictional village of Whitherton, North Carolina. The workers show little respect, smashing the hands of the stone children with their bells. An old man takes umbrage at their sacrilege, even of a tainted past. “You don’t understand, you can’t destroy this,” the old man cries. In the very next piece, his lamentation continues “This, he said, is history, our history.”

Even if we can’t agree on a shared history, we are all mourning, McIlvoy insists.   

The collection with its oddball pieces, its reflective shards, begins to cohere toward the end to longer stories. In “Blue Squill,” the narrator recounts the tribulations of his neighbor and dance instructor Mr. Jacob Jabbok who tries to keep the crows from destroying his garden by pissing voluminously around his flowers. 

The sister returns, always looking over the narrator’s shoulder to comment on such an odd premise for a story. “This is how you begin?” To her eye, Life only offers two questions. “You can ask ‘why is it so’ or you can say ‘is it so?’”

The narrator responds: “Certain tales answer the former. Certain tales, much smaller, embody the latter. This is one of that kind.”

Thus McIlvoy finds the title for his collection “Is it So?” and the summation of his aesthetic approach.  Instead of a cerebral style, McIlvoy always preached an embodied prose and poetry. He knew quite well that what sells in our literary markets is a transactional prose that slides readers along well-made plots to predictable pleasures ¬— what he called “completeness.” McIlvoy championed what he called the literature of “fullness,” those stories celebrating centrifugal energies that resist finding a center. He was most interested in perceptions and the human experience of being versus resolving dramatic plots with sudden actions of becoming. His was not the conventional hero’s journey, but the seer’s inner voyage, the act of sitting quietly, listening deeply, noticing more closely, getting comfortable with silences and stillness. 

A story seemingly about a man’s fruitless battle against the crows in his garden becomes the argument between a brother and an alcoholic sister with differing visions of the world and how to tell a good story.

“I’ve learned that stories should end by adding something that will result in a sense of honest fullness. I’ve learned that stories should end by subtracting something that will result in a sense of honest emptiness. I’ve lost the gist of how stories should begin.” 

In the companion piece “Mr Jabbok’s story ends as you expect,” the narrator recounts his sister’s own losing battle against alcoholism, and her unwillingness to shed her familiar story despite four trips through Alcoholics Anonymous and her inevitable relapses. 

Meanwhile, the narrator attends a wake for Mr. Jabbok in his beloved but wrecked garden. He tries to describe the surrounding ghostly shapes, “fog devils” that edge out of the woods into the human clearing. 

But he graciously gives the beloved if stubborn sister the last word. “‘That’s how you end a story?’” she asked, as she always asks.” 

Death is inevitable, but not the end of the story. Over his career as a writer, teacher, and seeker, McIlvoy had moved from the completeness of his childhood Catholic faith towards the fullness taught in Tibetan Buddhism. Dualities are illusions. Life and death, grief and love, loss and gain are not binary opposites, but aspects of the whole. 

McIlvoy offers his own hard-won answer with the concluding story “How to bear happiness.” The narrator trades his first-person point of view for second person—the more universal “you.” In an afterlife that looks suspiciously like a Department of Motor Vehicles bureaucracy, you take a number and wait your turn, only to get shuffled upstairs to the Office of the Clerk of Happiness. You finally learn that you haven’t framed your ultimate question correctly: “What is the sin in us living in joy together?” 

Again, there is no ready-made answer before you find yourself promptly dismissed and the ethereal clerk calls, “Next, please.”

Not the happy ending we crave, but somehow gentle and joyful, truer to Life and Death. 

A fitting send-off for a writer who signed all his books, email and correspondence with friends and strangers alike with his signature “In Joy, Mc.” 

Dale Neal is the author of the novel Kings of Coweetsee, coming in summer, 2024. His other novels include Appalachian Book of the Dead, shortlisted for the Thomas Wolfe Literary Award; Cow Across America, winner of the Novello Literary Award; and The Half-Life of Home. His short stories, essays, and reviews have appeared in Our State, Smoky Mountain Living, North Carolina Literary Review, Appalachian Journal, Carolina Quarterly and elsewhere. He earned an MFA in creative writing at Warren Wilson College. A retired journalist, he lives in Asheville, North Carolina.

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