In my Amazon review of Patricia Ann McNair’s collection of connected short stories, The Temple of Air, one of the things I think I got right was the following:
“ McNair has a knack for bringing to life details that are achingly familiar – the slamming screen doors, the headlights illuminating the dotted line asphalt of the highways on the outskirts, the high school gymnasiums, the murmur and glow of distant televisions, the late afternoon shadows of an empty house – but her real gift is the creation of the deceptively familiar and complex characters who inhabit this fever dream of a landscape.”
What I think rings even truer in her second book, a collection of essays, And These Are the Good Times, is the “fever dream” bit. What struck me reading this collection, which is mostly memoir, is the intimacy she establishes with the reader. She has a way of breaking down the distance between herself and the reader. It’s as if she’s whispering her fever dream into our ear as it’s occurring. It is intimacy and immediacy, it has the urgency of gossip and the musicality of art. On first reading, you get the sense that she is discovering the truths she reveals at the same time you are; it’s only on subsequent readings when you realize and appreciate how well the pieces are crafted and structured. McNair teaches writing at the university level, and while it’s clear that she practices what she teaches, it’s also clear that she has a gift that cannot be taught, that transcends craft.
I hold The Temple of Air in such high esteem that a part of me was reluctant to dive into And These Are the Good Times. There was no way I thought her non-fiction could approach her fiction. Boy, did I get that wrong! Turns out that the same things that make her fiction so compelling also apply to her non-fiction. Things like just the right and right amount of detail, her sense of place and time, and awareness of the connective tissue that tethers us to one another, and what happens when that tissue is severed, the free-fall we all tumble into at different times in our lives. This is the goal of any storyteller, fiction or non, to share something personal and remarkable, and ignite a flash of recognition in the reader’s awareness. In doing so, the storyteller is bestowing upon the reader the greatest gift of all: the awareness that, at least for that moment, he or she is not alone. The depths and the frequency of the truths McNair shares in And These Are the Good Times are evidence of more than artistry, it’s testament to a generosity of soul.