by Weston Cutter
I’m glad to see McManus back to form on this—his last book, Physical: An American Check-up, was a blah book not because the writing was bad (McManus is a stellar writer, always), and not because the subject was dull (hell, national debate of the moment), but because the book just fundamentally didn’t work. And of course, for outsiders (read: those of us not J. McManus himself), we could only look helplessly at his work and wonder why the hell the best writer on poker and gambling wasn’t, you know, writing on poker and gambling.
And so the first twenty pages of this thigh-crusher of a book are like breathing the best possible breaths after too much time spent underwater: fucking book starts by talking about presidents and poker and, specifically, dear ol’ pres #44. Deft and funny and interesting as hell (like: to the point of distracting you by making you want to call friends to share tidbits), Cowboys Full is absolutely the best/last book on poker anybody’s gonna need or be able to imagine for quite some time.
I really, really wanted to like this book—I’m a sucker for debut story collections, and the Flannery O’Connor Prize has had some great picks in the past, plus it seems like there’s a mile-long list of writers who fell all over themselves praising this collection. So: all high marks.
And, in fairness, it’s a good book—Porter’s a skilled writer, and the stories are, largely, interesting and worthwhile and none of them are terrific struggles to get through. However: they’re just…not great. They’re good, but they’re not holy-shit great, and I’ll absolutely acknowledge that it’s a matter of taste, but Porter’s The Theory of Light and Matter is another in a long, long list of debut collections by dudes which make me frustrated and/or sad (I’ve written about this before, elsewhere, but it’s a perennial stink flower, and one that’ll get revisited ad infinitum, I suspect).
Here’s the first give-away: each story is first person (again, note: I know this is about taste). Seriously? Every single story gets an “I”? (I’m all for 1p narrators, for the record: the three best American stories in the last 40 years—Barthleme’s “The Balloon,” Carver’s “Blackbird Pie,” and Wallace’s “Good Old Neon”—all have 1p narrators. Note, however, that none of those stories is part of a larger work in which every other fucking story in the collection is also written in 1p) Though there are differences between these “I”s, there are infinitely more similarities—they’re dudes, they’re white, they’ve got some sense of internal fracture (or they, during the actual course of the story, map out some of that internal fracture), they’re roughly in the same socioeconomic bracket, etc. [I'll block off the following in brakcets so you know it's not necessary reading, and so you'll know it's a rant: Here's what's flawed and awful about the milquetoast blandness and head-slappingly frustrating overlap of those narrators: it's intellectual and/or creative laziness on the part of the author to only include narrators who seem pretty goddamned similar to himself. It is. I write stories; lots of people who read this site probably write stories. Just about everybody'd have to agree that the fundamental act of writing has to do with empathy, with trying to imagine what the inside of someone else's skull must look/feel like, and to be so blatantly cocky/unassuming (literally) as to always stick to narrators who look like the writer is just, well shitty. It's shitty, and it's a disservice to stories, and to anyone who wants fiction to be great. There's plenty more to this rant, but in the half-interest of half-decent taste, let's move on.]
Here’s another thing: this collection, like so many others like it, is largely humorless. There seems to be some crappy secret equation passed among students at the big MFA programs, which equation reads “serious ≠ funny. Not Ever!” Are there funny moments in these stories? Absolutely. But no stories in which humor plays any key function.
So that’s the 1-2 of this tango: all “I,” all serious. I acknowledge that this is taste—not everyone wants, say, Blake Butler and Aimee Bender and Ron Carlson and Eudora Welty (good lord, she’s the queen of serious + funny)—but if anyone’s out there reading and if anyone actually gives a rat’s ass about this, let’s all agree to quit with the debut-books-by-dudes thing in which all narrators are the same and almost nothing’s funny. There’s plenty funny out there, and there are plenty more voices than the average bearded white dude who wonders about his own internal brokenness and bleak navel ruminations and etc. Worse, there aren’t all that many writers who can write as well as Porter, and great writing needs all the help it can get, and he seems capable of way, way more than we’re here receiving.