T. M. McNally's latest book, Until Your Heart Stops, is his first full length novel. But it won't be his first success: in 1990, McNally won the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction for his collection of short stories, Low Flying Aircraft. Critics greeted his short stories with open arms. They all loved his "voice." A reviewer for San Francisco Chronicle described his "original language;" in The New York Times a critic gushed about his "stark, imaginistic prose."
The style of Until Your Heart Stops clearly springs from his short fiction. He establishes his tone within the first few pages--one of the primary challenges in writing short stories. But a novel must be more than a short story writ large. McNally's voice, for all its clarity, cannot single handedly support a novel.
McNally elaborately portrays a high school community in Phoenix, Arizona. Puberty, break-ups, confused sexuality, divorces, insanity and a suicide or two confront the motley cast of teachers, parents, students and lovers. Walker Miller, an angst-ridden teen, shoots himself in the mouth, triggering a season of self-analysis for everyone involved. The novel charts their attempts to recognize and deal with their grief.
McNally forges a complicated, interlocking structure of relationships. By the end of the book, the initial shock of the suicide has spread through the network of characters and dissipated. The plot appears a mechanical process, divorced from the actions of those whom it surrounds. McNally creates no rapport between the story and the subjects, no common development of scope and substance. The narrative never takes off, never generates its own momentum, never grows--it just plays itself out.
McNally's prose undermines his work. In an overly naturalistic tone, ideas tumble out, one after another, unordered, unexplained. Each sentence yields another non sequitur. This style has its merit. He captures perfectly the inarticulateness of human psychology. The helplessness of the characters, the half hearted flailing of the plot, and the unfathomable morass of the prose are expressive and poignant. But they do not make a novel; they do not satisfy the reader.
Nor do they satisfy McNally, who mixes didacticism into his realist story to make for an unholy cocktail. He winds up with a diffuse, inarticulate bundle of ideas, but his agenda is obvious throughout. The dedication betrays his inflated vision of the word. "To the living." He wants to make sweeping statements, to express the human condition. To this end, he stuffs ponderous, unwieldy philosophical proclamations into the mouths of his characters. Jenna, the swimming coach who thinks that her pornographic part prompted the suicides, tells herself. "In the beginning was the word, and the word was made flesh, and once passion turns to shame, our lives become apology." McNally cannot disguise preaching by putting it in the mouths of his characters.
McNally appears uneasy with his own sermonizing. One of his novel's characters a teacher, rejects his career because the staff exerts pressure on him to use textbooks. He considers formal education superfluous, a poor preparation for life. Living will teach us all we need to know. This attitude stands in utter contradiction to McNally's frequently didactic tone.
Until Your Heart Stops gets caught in its own trap. McNally employs a simple naturalistic style in his prose and plot which loses itself in the maze it seeks to depict. He creates a world so true to life in its senselessness that the audience finds it meaningless. Its premise of the book is McNally wants to teach us that we cannot be taught.
A critic once lavished praise on McNally's "unforgettable portraits. A portrait, or a short story, creates the atmosphere, sets the tone, presents an idea. McNally can do this much brilliantly. But he hasn't yet learned.