Texas Review Covers Dennis Must

THE TEXAS REVIEW, Volume 30, Numbers 3&4, Fall Winter 2009

Dennis Must's second story collection is stunning in its complexity, its variety, and its original, forceful treatment of universal themes. These stories surprise while they also remind us of familiar truths about the human need to live with meaning, dignity, and purpose — and to aspire beyond one's quotidian lot. Some stories are reminiscent of Banjo Grease, Must's debut collection, where people long to escape their working class roots in Hebron, Pennsylvania. Several hard-hitting stories in this collection powerfully evoke constraints on human happiness. In choosing to act against these, whether in good faith or bad, Must's characters struggle to affirm their essential humanity.

The premier story, "Typewriter," sets the edgy, and often desperate, tone for this collection. Here, Muller, a writer, has left his wife and children, holed himself up in a boarding house to write day and night, living off his meager savings, half-starved, treating himself to his imaginary "ceiling pie," piling up work for a manuscript that proves — once he finally allows himself a second look — to be exceedingly marginal. He was about to return home on money his wife has reluctantly sent — weary of his lack of marital commitment — but instead he returns to the bleak boarding house, once again to resume his writing. Must examines dramatically, minutely, Muller's writerly life, which is one of misery, drudgery, yet filled with dire hope. One has to wonder: what must the artist give up to perfect his art? To fulfill his driving need? This compelling need, in more general terms, is what Must is mostly after — the decidedly human longing to achieve something that is miserably out of reach, as elusive as that ceiling pie that serves to allay the writer's hunger and misery if only for a moment. On one level, the story functions as a powerful parable about a truth of the human condition –the profound desire in humans to escape the confines of this very condition. Even if it's an illusory goal of sorts, we can't help but admire the protagonist's unrelenting pursuit of it, which is rendered so beautifully by the author.

More wistful than frenetic in tone, "The News from Heaven" deals with one of the most familiar of constraints on human happiness — namely the sadness that attends the death of a loved one. The story works with two time-frames: childhood and adulthood. When Westley was a young child, his parents got rid of his dog, Shadow, dumping him off in the country, where, they encouraged Westley to imagine, Shadow would have plenty of room to romp and roam. Westley picked up on the real message here: they had sent Shadow to "dog's heaven." As it turned out, however, Shadow was, in fact, alive because one day Westley found him lying on a curb in front of a grocery store. Westley now thought of him as Houdini?a kind of miracle-worker. With this apparent supernatural turn of events, how could he not be allowed to keep his pet dog? In the story?s present time-frame, the adult Westley suddenly loses his brother Jeremiah when he dies of a heart attack. The preacher says he was taken to heaven. For Westley, this could be the story of Shadow all over again, a story he has evidently stored up in his heart against the ravages of time: Someday, perhaps, there will be a report that Jeremiah qua Shadow will be spotted alongside a curb, panting. Westley will treat him like he'd treated Shadow — and see why the death certificate was phony. Like "Lament," a companion piece, this story surprises with its sheer delightful treatment of a subject as dark as death, and yet it's a quite appropriate rendering of Must's premise: It sometimes takes the faith of a child, the author suggests, to deal with such horrendous pains and anguishes that mark the human lot.

Perhaps the story that most directly exemplifies the existential limits of the human in this world is "Scatology." We witness the incredible optimism and energy of Ben's father, with his dreams and visions, his taking his son to the 1939 New York World's Fair, not so much because of his belief in the future, but instead because of "his impatience with the past." His is a mad rush to throw off anything, clothes especially, that burdens one with the benighted past. It's a fight against death he mounts — a sterile one, though, filled with "brand merchandizing," and ultimately "all kind of sad." For Ben, looking back, "Visiting the Empire State Building was his pilgrimage to Lourdes. Except no miracle ever occurred. One empty experience after another." It worked for a while: "How dapper he always looked." But old age and impending death eventually catch up: "all fell short in his latter days when he sat staring at the walls, wrapped in a Montgomery Ward flannel night coat." Ben is left attempting to help his father find dignity in his declining years, with his stained underwear a sign of his ever-debilitating physical condition — his mortality. The story is rich with one man's struggle, whether with Sartrean bad faith or not, against his doomed sense of death. What makes the story unusual is Must's insight that for humans, such a struggle is seldom played out on a grand scale but on a depressingly mundane one: freighted with the conventional — expressed in such human enterprises as ordinary trips and the trappings of brand name clothes.

There is an impressive range of stories here, some extending the treatment of class and social themes in Must's first collection: being hired on as a worker for the aloof, privileged class; breaking taboos of small-town churchiness; and dealing with a dysfunctional family in a larger broken social order. Overall, these stories authentically confront human experience, and insightfully show what humans choose and so often have to settle for.

–Jack Smith