Kyle Minor's stories take place in some pretty rough terrain. The first three words of "The San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl Party," the opening story in In the Devil's Territory, tell us that the narrator hates Christmas. Then we learn that his family's Christmas gathering, which would be stifling in any year, is complicated by his wife's high-risk pregnancy, his sick and unruly child, and his mother's painful recuperation from surgery. This year, the family is not celebrating Christmas, it is suffering an ordeal.
An early scene in the story captures the tenor of Minor's debut collection. Brenda, the wife rendered helpless by a fragile pregnancy, demands that her husband make her an ice cream sundae. But not just any ice cream sundae. She wants vanilla ice cream over a warm brownie with crushed almonds on top. It's a lot to ask and her husband is tired. And so, six days before Christmas, in her imperiled health and his fatigue, the young couple fights over whether he will get her the sundae.
I hadn't turned the first page of Minor's collection and already I felt uncomfortable.
"Look," I wanted to say, "you two stay here. I'll get the sundae."
Minor's stories are about lives that have drifted, inexorably it seems, into the land of the collection's title. Or, to use the plain key in which Minor's characters often speak, these are stories about people who have come up hard against the world.
"A Day Meant to Do Less," selected for Best American Mystery Stories 2008, maps the lifetime toll of the trauma Franny Wenderoth endures as a child. In "A Love Story," a southern preacher suffers the pain of having exiled his sexuality from his identity. The title story, which traces the torn lives of an East German refugee, an air-conditioning serviceman, and his errant son, ends with a few lines of brochure copy that might have been the collection's epigraph: "Mistakes were made long ago. It is someone else's fault. We can't be held responsible, but we are very sorry."
Minor's voice lands somewhere between William Faulkner and Stephen King. There is a lot of what you might call high drama, but it is also aimed at something true. In this passage, John Wenderoth, Franny's husband in "A Day Meant to Do Less," steers his truck to the roadside while he is having a heart attack:
They got into the car and drove away, and that's the last time she saw John alive. On the interstate, on the way to the construction site, John clutched his hand to his chest. Jack later said that he thought, for a moment, his father would lose control of the car; but just as Jack was reaching for the wheel, John rallied, inhaled with great effort – “He was white as a sheet," Jack recalled – and straightened his shoulders and gripped the wheel and steered the car onto the shoulder and then the grass strip beyond.
Minor's work never veers into melodrama, although I did think that I could sometimes see it looming in the distance. Still, throughout these stories, Minor keeps a steady hand. I always believed what I was reading. His stories are steeped in pain and difficult to read, but his characters are flesh and bone, their lives genuine, their losses real. In the end, Minor's collection does not try to convince the reader that the devil's territory is limitless, only that it covers a great number of small corners in the world.