"IF I HAD TWO WINGS" by Randall Kenan (Norton, 211 pages, $26).
In Randall Kenan's new story collection, "If I Had Two Wings," men and women often find themselves in bewildering circumstances, caught up in twists of fate that demand a new action or unrehearsed response. Sometimes these characters are able to trace a line from their pasts to these strange, exciting moments. Sometimes the trajectory is less clear. What is certain is that nothing will be the same for them hereafter, no matter their decisions, no matter the lesson learned or not learned.
Kenan, who died Aug. 28 at age 57, was a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers, a professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the acclaimed author of several books. In two previous works of fiction, the novel "A Visitation of Spirits" and the story collection "Let the Dead Bury Their Dead," he established the fictional setting of Tims Creek, North Carolina, inspired in part by his own hometown of Chinquapin in southeastern North Carolina. "If I Had Two Wings" returns readers to Tims Creek, and quite a few of its characters are returning as well. Having left the country, so to speak, they are now being pulled back, at least for the moment, into its embrace.
The collection opens with a delightful tale featuring a Tims Creeker who has left town for a vacation in the Big Apple. Ed Phelps is enjoying strolling the city blocks when he is swept into Billy Idol's entourage. The ensuing events are both wacky and wondrous; and Ed, in reverie afterward, is transported back to a much earlier time. Present and past collide in a meaningful departure from the everyday, less bitter than sweet.
In other stories, Kenan's characters find the past rising up to meet them in even more gripping ways. They are haunted — by old romance, by actual ghosts, by knowledge, by burdens they never knew to name as such. They do not always achieve a full reckoning with these things. They are both of Tims Creek and of the thousands of miles they have traveled away from it and back to it, inevitably held at some distance. The same can often be said of their attitude toward religion. "Time was not a winged chariot," a character muses in "I Thought I Heard the Shuffle of Angels' Feet." "It was a space shuttle. A battlestar. A comet."
In "Ain't No Sunshine," just before a cuckolded pastor confronts his wife's lover, he experiences "a transmogrification, a possession, a quicksilver change." Kenan writes: "In his pause he lost touch with language. He saw only pictures at this point in his passage; he saw [his wife], he saw his father, he saw his mother, he saw his girls; he saw wild horses and winged demons; he saw knives and buckets full of blood, and massive stones upon which entrails oozed and buzzards hissed."
But after the fight, he "strode to his car, not like a warrior who has vanquished someone of consequence, but very like a hunter who shot a fawn by mistake." Action, for this character and others, does not always carry release on its wind.
Food has played a starring role in Kenan's previous work, and it shows up frequently and deliciously here, as when a narrator's mother is invited to be a private chef for Howard Hughes. Recounting this curious tale, the narrator reflects on learning the art of cooking from his mother. "I would go home more frequently to watch her in action, to see how she washed the greens, to see what she put in the water with her hog maws, to learn her seasonings, her timing, her heat. I was learning a new definition of love."
While food is a constant in the book, the narratives themselves swerve and circle back masterfully through time, as if evoking the strange, circuitous pathways that memory often takes. "Resurrection Hardware, or Lard & Promises," a delightful story about coming home and ghosts and relationships, calls to mind the stories of Alice Munro in its nimble hops through time and space. At one point, the narrator's lover asks him if he misses North Carolina. "Only when I'm there," he responds.
Like many of the individuals peopling these stories, this character, named Randall, has traveled many roads before returning to Tims Creek. He knows what it feels like to leave home, to start over, to love and to lose love. The fact that he now finds himself living in a restored (and apparently haunted) farmhouse in rural North Carolina, after years of urban life, seems both surprising and inevitable. He is wide open to the wonder of it, still figuring out what this strange new turn has in store for him. As he barhops around Chapel Hill with a group of old friends, he muses, "Revelations work on their own time, not ours. The beats beat on. The night beats on."
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