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Arts & Life

Book Review: Andrew Malan Milward's 'I Was A Revolutionary'

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Andrew Malan Milward
I Was A Revolutionary (HarperCollins)

 

As a place and as an idea, Kansas has a rich, textured history, including everything from bloodthirsty abolitionists to the first woman elected to public office, Susanna Salter. And for every widely known story about America’s 34th state, another remains more or less forgotten.

Consider the legacy of Nicodemus, Kansas, an all-black homestead founded in the decades after the Civil War, or the annihilation of the People of the South Wind, the Kaw Nation, also known as the Kansa, who gave their name to the territory that settlers — often German, Irish, Polish, or Balkan immigrants in the process of becoming white — stole from them.

Much of the state’s secret past is like this: sad, contentious, bloody, and thought-provoking. Sometimes it’s downright weird. In other words, fertile ground for storytellers.

Andrew Malan Milward’s new collection, I Was a Revolutionary, grows complex narratives from these obscure and captivating historical fragments. His writing is quiet, beautiful, and harrowing, bringing life to people and places you thought you knew. It’s a book powered by the past, if not consumed by it.

Two kinds of stories fill the 243 pages in Revolutionary. Both rely on history for irony and plot, but they differ in execution. The first are straightforward, chronological stories and generate tension, at least in part, from the reader’s knowledge of a future the characters can’t imagine. This is the case with “O Death,” which recounts a family’s harrowing journey to Nicodemus. It’s also the case with “The Americanist,” about a gay man dating a nurse who works at Dr. George Tiller’s abortion clinic. Here, the author dedicates a lot of text to a real-life xenotransplantation pioneer and radio mogul from the 1920s who claimed he could cure impotent men by surgically implanting them with goat testicles. Instead of focusing on Dr. Tiller’s assassination by an anti-abortion militant, Milward's story favors a quieter, fictional disaster: the dissolution of the relationship between the narrator and his boyfriend, Will.

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Credit Kristin Teston
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Andrew Malan Milward

In the second kind of story, readers follow characters obsessed with history, stories folded over onto themselves and filled with people unable to tear their eyes away from the past. “The Burning of Lawrence,” which opens the book, features a female narrator fascinated by William Quantrill and the massacre he perpetrated. It’s told partly through objects: a book, a film, a monument, a photograph. As the girl tells us about the men who died in Lawrence, another tale emerges and blends with the first—a story about the narrator and her unrequited love for a male college friend, his failed career as a musician, and his decision to enlist in the army during the Second Iraq War.

In both kinds of narrative, readers experience the strengths and weaknesses of what Mark McGurl called the “workshop story collection” in his groundbreaking 2009 book of literary criticism, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing. Milward graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the flagship school for the the kind of programs McGurl was talking about, and it shows. He excels at the kind of naturalistic story championed by most MFA programs: character-driven reflection pools where readers lose themselves leading up to the story’s final epiphany.

If you like that kind of writing, then this is as good as literature gets. Stories like “Good Men a Long Time Gone” tend toward what McGurl called Lower-Middle-Class Modernism, detailing the lives of blue-collar meatpackers in Dodge City, while “Hard Feelings,” “O Death,” and “The Americanist” fall more into the category of High-Cultural Pluralism by giving voices to disenfranchised minorities like people of color and people of diverse sexual orientations.

The resulting tapestry succeeds at what all successful literature does: It deepens one’s understanding of what it means to be human. In this case, it can also deepen America’s understanding of what it means to be Kansan.

Milward was born in Lawrence, after all, a city rebuilt and changed so many years after its destruction, and he may be attempting to more fully understand what it means to be Kansan for himself. Here we find not just the rural, conservative, flag-waving caricature of a state where 84 percent of the population claims white as its ethnicity, but also a multifaceted exploration of how many different ways one can live a life even on a landscape that is — on the surface at least — so politically and culturally homogenous.

We also feel the full weight of what William Faulkner meant when he wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Seeing that on a coffee mug or a T-shirt isn’t even close to the same as living it firsthand through Milward’s vivid, revolutionary prose.

Ben Pfeiffer's writing has appeared in the Paris Review Daily, Fiction Writers Review, The Brooklyn Rail, and The Kansas City Star. He is the Interviews Editor at The Rumpus.

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