When Frank and B. B. Hulsey come to visit Buddy Graves in the middle of the night, you know that something violent and strange is going to happen. When Dr. Earl Wayne's reading of Maude Bodkin's "Archetypal Patterns in Poetry" is interrupted by a telephone call from a woman who insists on remaining anonymous, one can't help but feel anxious for Dr. Wayne; and when a 6-year-old ragamuffin enters Mrs. Florence Warren's well-kept house in the lady's absence, you are certain that no good will come of it.
The Hulsey brothers have Buddy Graves remove his shoes, read from the Bible ("For thou verily givest thanks well, but the other is not edified") and tell them that he loves them before they kill him. Dr. Wayne, the author of a volume of poems titled "The Worst of Luck," receives two more calls from his crazy admirer before she pretends to shoot herself while talking with him on the telephone. Mrs. Warren's intruder slices patterns on a red velvet love seat, destroys a gold-framed lithograph of a girl by the sea and then defecates on the wall-to-wall carpet.
The 17 stories in "Whatever Isn't Glory" attest to an unusually mischievous sense of character. Thomas McAfee has the capability of recognizing the variety of forms that human vindictiveness can take and of remaining unperturbed by them; indeed. McAfee seems to enjoy his familiarity with evil. Unlike many contemporary novelists who deal with the darker side of life, McAfee does not find it necessary to reach into parapsychology, the occult and other more bizarre elements of human experience in order to disturb us: His dark vision of things simply involves everyday life. His apparent acceptance of the baser elements in his characters allows him to report their actions in a somewhat matter-of-fact tone; and it is this tone that makes some of these stories chilling and gives the overall impact of this collection considerable weight.
These stories are all set in small towns and rural areas of Alabama. The first story in the book, "The Merry Month of May," serves as a kind of scene-setting introduction to McAfee's general milieu. It is also one of the best stories in the book. It is in three parts, beginning with the desecration of Mrs. Florence Warren's home on May 13; then shifting to a discussion of May 14 between Mr. and Mrs. J. J. Creelus and their daughter, Eugenia, concerning Mrs. Warren's misfortune, which greatly delights Creelus, much to his wife's distress; and finally to a potluck supper at the Methodist Church in Jenkins, Ala., on May 27, where Orchid Planter, elder sister of Mrs. Warren's child intruder, is forced to take a bath by members of the congregation, enthusiastically led by Mrs. Warren. Orchid is described as "the worst of all and she weighs about three hundred pounds and has hair on her legs and you can smell her a block away." McAfee doesn't allow any moral superiority on the part of the congregation, though. He lets us know he feels that they are no better than poor Orchid. This story is perfectly conceived, very well written, and introduces the play between order and disorder that threads its way through most of the stories, with much emphasis on the disorder. "The Merry Month of May" is also very funny.
If there is a criticism to be made of McAfee's work here, it is that the vigorously evoked sense of locale in these stories may seem derivative, especially of the work of Flannery O'Connor. Even the ultimate acts of violence in O'Connor's work fail to suggest significance behind the acts; and the implication in O'Connor's work is that it is the society which she describes that is responsible for the failure to provide significance for its members and their actions. This is in contrast to Faulkner country, where characters tend to define themselves through mythic acts of violence. Thomas McAfee's Alabama closely resembles O'Connor's Georgia. Buddy Graves isn't really sure why the Hulsey brothers want to kill him, and neither are we. There is an appalling lack of purpose behind the violence.
McAfee's characters are painted with broader brush strokes than O'Connor's are, however; in that respect his writing is closer to Erskine Caldwell's in "God's Little Acre." Certainly McAfee has established himself in the Southern literary tradition. Since he has one novel, "Rover Youngblood," four volumes of poetry and another volume of stories and poems prior to this to his credit, it is surely time for him to emerge from the relative obscurity of the small presses and to receive wider attention. The narrative skills at work in "Whatever Isn't Glory" make McAfee an author worth noticing and make this collection well worth reading.