Contemporary Literature · Short Stories

If I Had Two Wings

Here I am with my second-to-last Aspen Words Literary Prize 2021 longlist review. This is also one of the 5 finalists for the prize, which I didn’t get to read until after that shortlist was announced. But better late than never! Also, I had no idea that the author lived in the same town in NC as me. And I also was unaware, but found out after some further research, that he died within the past year. It’s so sad to hear when artists pass away and to know that the world will never receive new creations from them. But it is uplifting to know his work is still being honored, especially as this was (as far as I could tell) one of the least traditionally “popular” books from the longlist. I was particularly excited to dive into these stories after learning where Kenan was from because NC is not really a popular setting for literature (which I can definitely understand), but I do always enjoy the experience of recognizing places and quirks and larger realities that appear in these fictional tales. (And spoiler alert: this collection definitely delivers on that front.)

If I Had Two Wings by Randall Kenan

As always with collections, let me begin with a little reaction blurb for each of the stories as I read them. And then I will end with some final overarching thoughts and reactions.

When We All Get to Heaven – What a dreamlike quality to a story. A stolen day in a city with an almost unbelievable/unreal experience that perfectly embodies and communicates the vibe of a day unlike any other day, a day that will live as a “was that even real” memory because it was so outside the normal and recognizable life one lives. An ephemeral opening piece. “At that moment, between them, something odd and familiar occurred: two boys who together and without words recognize and acknowledge the Dangerous Thing, and, being like-minded, imagine assaying said Thing, and with each passing moment feel the Thing exert greater gravitational force upon the two, each to each, and along with the weight comes glee, anticipation, heat, so much so that the Dangerous Thing becomes the Irresistible Thing, the Inevitable Thing.”

I Thought I Heard the Shuffle of Angels’ Feet – The content of this one was really emotional. Loss of a loved one and end-of-life illness/care, are presented in a few different ways. But it’s also grounded in connections with the past, one’s birthplace home, and the surprising places and ways the past can spring new relationships on the present. Really touching. Though I did sometimes struggle to catch all the characters and their placement in the story, as there were a lot of names introduced quickly and the storytelling skipped around a bit. “Time was not a winged chariot. It was a space shuttle. A battlestar. A comet.”                                                 

The Eternal Glory That Is Ham Hocks – The changing time/POV style was much easier to follow for me here, compared to the previous story. I loved the narrator’s voice for this one, the snarky asides he added in here and there to enhance the story he was retelling. There was a rather lovely representation of pride and connection and love for a small town and the life one can have there, a life that no money or opportunity can be “better” or “more” than. This story will speak to anyone with a deep love and nostalgia for their roots. “But this mania – one among the many he collected and harbored and cultivated like virulent viruses in the petri dish of his soul – wasn’t really about food, in the end, it was about time, time lost, time gone, about remembrance, about a feeling. Money can’t buy you love, a famous song says – but that’s just one of the many several things beyond its grasp.”

Ain’t No Sunshine – The story fully captures that mid-life feeling of…stasis. You’ve made the big decisions and are now living, stuck with the outcomes they’ve wrought, for better or worse or mundane. And even if mundane works, you’re happy with mundane, sometimes those urges you had, that made those decisions, set you up for a life that cannot mellow in the mundane, other people won’t allow it. A truly musical embodiment of that bewilderment and settling of middle age. 

Ezekiel Saw the Wheel – Huh. This was a short one, taking place entirely in the hypothetical in our narrator’s thought. A really interesting set-up and a very smart setting and combination telling for looking at death, reaction to real-life death, anticipation of death, and the ways people might react to that anticipated death. A snapshot of a moment in a life while it looks forward to death. Fascinating and spiritual in nature. 

Mamiwata – Oh I do love a story with a solid dose of folklore in it. This one had a great otherworldly vibe and, again, that gorgeous sense of place (this time, within nature as well). Plus, a feeling of timelessness despite that there are clear indications of what time period it actually was. It was over quick but it left a slice of magic in the soul.

Resurrection Hardware or, Lard & Promises – And we’re back to the jumping all over in time and perspective, but this time, I felt like the story was long enough to support it. And by the end, I got a gorgeous portrait of a man, told in short bursts of remembrance and moment. This one felt particularly personal, the emotion behind the words, the relationships, the connections, the history, the decisions…they all felt almost like memoir. I think because of that, this story resonated with me deepest, so far. I really felt the narrator. And this one had a very singular magical realism aspect to it, bringing the history not of the narrator’s home place, but his ancestors, to life in a way that illustrated, in a lovely way, how the truth of the past cannot be left in the past, because it follows us throughout the years. “We are made by the things we regret.” / “Revelations work on their own time, not ours.”

The Acts of Velmajean Swearington Hoyt and the New City of God – Whoa. A really interesting look at the commercialization of religion, which is definitely a major cultural point in the nation and, especially, the South. Also, the magical realism of miracles, the exploration of them as either a blessing or a curse for the miracle-worker and the question of their purpose, to serve God or to do good, was really interesting. I am not at all a religious person, but I did enjoy the development of the themes in this story. 

Now Why Come That Is? –Kind of a weird surreal moral tale about a man being haunted by the vision of a hog that only some other people can see. And I’m not totally sure I understood what it meant, though if the hog was a metaphorical representation of all the evils committed by our narrator and his ancestors, to give him privilege in the world, and the way they took so much advantage of others to do so, I like that message and believe it is important. I’m just not sure the delivery worked for me. And I don’t know what we were supposed to take from the ending, if anything. And if I’m right about the moral message, then I feel like the closing lesson maybe should have been clearer?

God’s Gonna Trouble the Water or, Where Is Marisol? – Oh, what a heartbreaker to end on. And yet, Kenan shows with horrifying clarity the way people are able to so easily move past trauma and worry when they’re only indirectly affected by it. Wow. A strong closing tale. One of my favorite stories of the bunch.

There is something just really unique about Kenan’s writing. It’s got a sort of otherworldly vibe, in the structure and flow. And such an intellectual style of vocabulary and delivery. The stories themselves are also fascinatingly unique in style. They’re all just normal moments, glimpses at small parts of a life, but the ambience created by the writing gives them a sense of magical realism, even though it’s mostly just gorgeously written realism. This is really enhanced by Kenan’s spectacular ability to convey a sense of place in his writing. Being so firmly planted in the setting, physically and emotionally, allows a very real connection to be made for the reader. Kenan is also very into the alternating-time style to telling a story, jumping back and forth in temporal perspective and for some stories it was great, some made it harder to follow, and all in all it felt a bit repetitive, by the end, even for those stories where it fit well. Overall, there is a sense of an ending in the writing, a subtle closing or saying good-bye. I’m not sure how to explain it exactly, perhaps its related to the way he writes so poetically and nostalgically about place, but it’s unlike anything (vibe-wise) that I’ve read before.

This was such an interesting collection, with a deep sense of being rooted in something throughout, but that connection for the reader is to setting rather than characters. There were many people and plots introduced and for the most part I am already forgetting them. But I do know the atmospheric quality of the stories hits in a quiet, but eerie and bone-deep, sort of way. Really distinctive, but probably not destined to be a new favorite, at least for me.  


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