Review | The Way the World Is: The Maggie Boylan Stories

by Steven Paul Lansky

The Way the World Is: The Maggie Boylan Stories
by Michael Henson
Winner of the 2014 Brighthorse Book Prize in Short Fiction

The emotional resonance in The Way the World Is takes a musical quality, as the reader enjoys losing time, like listening to wheels beneath a car on a long ride, or the melodies of Gillian Welch accompanied by the plaintive guitar of Dave Rawlings.  Henson’s tones are spot on.  The drawn breath at the power of his prose is an uncommonly pleasant moment.

Henson’s books are beginning to be studied in classrooms, a fitting environment for his brand of naturalism blended with a kind of spiritual hardball.

Lars von Trier has said: “A film should be like a stone in your shoe.”

Henson’s stories contain this quality.

This is a fine line, though.  The reader could stop and give up, but something keeps her, like Maggie Boylan, metaphorically walking down the road instead of sitting on the hard curb, untying the shoe, pulling it off her dry heel, fingering the hole in her wool sock, reaching into the dry, hard, smelly leather, finding the stone, pulling it into her palm, after fingering its coarse edge, and then tucking it into her wet cheek, thrusting her tongue aside, tasting salt, fungus, warmth, a hard groove.  Henson’s Maggie Boylan insists that the reader bite down, break a tooth, taste salt pain.

Characters in these linked stories come and go.  Perhaps the most emotionally rendered, haunting by their necessary passing, are the ones who die and become detritus.  The living ones witness this urgent, necessary dissolution with limited skill to articulate what has gone.  The narrator has the voice, when starched straight deputy Timothy Weatherstone delivers an eviction notice to a poor man in wind-battered trailer and returns later to find the results of his work.

The book seems to wander between cruelties.  Those wrought by disease, mostly addictions, and yes they are diseases, and man’s inhumanity to his fellows, which seem motivated by survival, even when the inhumanity takes a depth and dimension that is so other that it is never understood.

Henson’s fluid prose makes the journey easy, though, the rhythms, sounds, and ideas combine to generate a voice, and as the voice, like a breeze rustling leaves never raked, now it is early spring, yes, it is a less manicured vision, a voice with a wavering edge, like the high lonesome of bluegrass, a weathered sound of neglect, that coat is ever too thin, but unlike Gogol’s fantastic world the magic here is found both in noetic language and at the end, when the myriad characters form a prayer circle in a most unexpected, yet familiar place.