Here’s a little secret: I grew up in a small town very similar to the setting for Patricia Ann McNair’s debut collection of loosely linked stories, The Temple of Air. I know those sprawling fields, the quiet starry nights interrupted only by the occasional passing freight train, the speed at which juicy gossip travels, the type of connection you build with someone from being their neighbor your whole life. Small towns are a catch-all for every type of person and McNair shows the variety, no two alike, contrary to the stereotypes. She reaches down deep into the cores of her characters, pulls out their secrets, the things that make them human, and presents them to you in this book.
A teenage girl learns she is losing the secret love of her life to Vietnam, at prom of all places, while a tornadic storm rages outside. A woman challenges her husband to a foot race and ends up lost in the sudden clarity of wanting a divorce. Twin brothers migrate to New Hope for a quiet life with almost-fake names after committing a crime in Chicago. A woman tries to regain her self-confidence and eradicate her sadness with sex while fighting breast cancer. The common thread between them is New Hope—their rural Midwestern home, not unlike the hundreds of small towns you may have passed through, on your way to bigger and more exciting places. New Hope is one person’s cell and another’s safe hiding spot. It is the only constant in their lives.
The first sentence reads: And even as it happened, Nova could not believe it. The opening story, titled “Something Like Faith,” sets the haunting tone for the rest of the book when Nova, her brother Sky and his best friend Michael, three teenagers, witness a parent’s worst nightmare on a summer carnival ride. From then on, the book unfolds fast, introducing new characters in each story and returning to old ones over the span of three decades. McNair returns often to Nova, Michael and Sky as she moves forward, revealing the rest of their lives in hints while they pop in and out of other characters’ stories. Everyone quickly becomes connected in small yet important ways.
The bones of the book glimmer in the spirit of Winesburg, Ohio. McNair’s sentences are free flowing and emotionally charged, electric power lines running straight to your brain. Each word is honest and relatable.
In “The Things That’ll Keep You Alive,” a woman dealing with breast cancer, has to inject herself with medication each day in her own kitchen and wait for the effects, sometimes good, sometimes bad, to overtake her.
This time it’s a bad one. I’m going, going, going—all slipping down, down in the chair, down in my head, down deep and bad. I want to look out the windows, out into the cool black, but I can’t keep my head up, it won’t hold, and it falls back, rolls on my neck, and it’s the horrible bright white I see, the burning glow of the overhead fixture, big and smarting against my eyes.
In the shortest story, “The Joke,” a teenage girl hitches a ride with a perverted stranger who convinces her to do dirty things. McNair’s sentences are long and panic-filled, telling of a young girl who hasn’t the confidence or the intelligence to remove herself from a dangerous situation.
And I didn’t know how to stop listening, how to get him to shut up for chrissakes, shut up, shut the fuck up, and the smell of that car, that plastic, that awful thick glue smell made my stomach churn and my eyes smart, and I couldn’t turn away when he reached down and pulled his zipper, pulled his dick out….
But I don’t want to have only warned you of McNair’s gritty and sometimes depressing honesty. There are other moments. Moments of love and friendship, peace and hope so shining bright that it can be just as painful as the dark stuff. Sharing Bazooka gum comics. The feeling of a loved one’s hand on your heart. Exploring someone else’s body for the first time. Surprising generosity from the ice cream shop owner you just attempted to rob. Witnessing a magic trick you can’t quite wrap your head around.
From the very first story, McNair had me cheering for these characters—these neighbors, these friends, these family members, these lovers—rooting them on as they try to keep the faith when all the odds in the world are staring them down, waiting to pounce.