Book Review

It is easy to see how the stories forming David E. Yee’s debut collection, Mongolian Horse, bring to light the heartaches that accompany the end of one’s youth as each story’s protagonist gains a clear-eyed sense of life’s disappointments. Yee’s protagonists, mostly men in their twenties and early thirties, experience varying forms of loss, learning just how deeply a heartbreak, the death of a parent, or the fracturing of a friendship can linger in the heart long after these intimate connections have been severed. However, what follows these losses isn’t necessarily a hardening of these men’s perspectives on life, or an abrupt change in their willingness to form such bonds. Instead, what these stories reveal in their telling is a yearning for something essential yet elusive that these men glimpsed fleetingly over the course of these relationships, and which lies at the heart of their grief.

In that sense, the experience of loss provides an opening for these characters into understanding what it is, exactly, that they yearn for in life, which they feel would give meaning to the otherwise banal tasks that fill their day-to-day existences. The act of telling, for the protagonist-narrators of Mongolian Horse, becomes a means of mourning what has been lost, which inevitably leads these men towards a deeper understanding of why they mourn these losses. The collection’s opening story, “Heaven for Your Full Lungs,” outlines the roadmap for this metaphysical journey in the most literal sense, introducing us to a young musician named Thump who drowns after falling overboard from a yacht and awakens in a tank, realizing as he rises from the water that he is surrounded by other tanks housing the spirits of those who have died from drowning. It is the only story in the collection that employs elements of magical realism, and by doing so flips the conventional narrative of loss on its head, showing us a young man who feels an aching sense of grief after being violently pulled away from a life that was yet to reach its definitive conclusion. The characters he meets in this heaven for the drowned are also unsettled in the finality of their deaths, lingering over their final moments in stories they tell each other, as though mere repetition can undo their failures to conclude their lives on their own terms. Through his friendship with Benji, a talkative mailman who prods him about his final night on earth, he slowly begins to work through his own unsettled feelings about an argument he had with his girlfriend shortly before getting drunk and falling overboard. There is a sadness surrounding these feelings of being unseen by an intimate partner, and in this man’s case, of having his Asian ethnicity fetishized and his humanity dismissed, that is impossible for him to find any resolution for, whether in death or in life. The failures of those we love to understand and recognize our full value is a running theme in this collection, and in this story that subverts our expectations of the dead having any peace in the afterlife, we are forced to ask ourselves what it is that we hope to retrieve from the past as we mull over what might have been.

In the story “Fontanelle,” it is not the beloved’s full and undivided attention that the male protagonist seeks, for he realizes early on in their relationship that Lane, a woman several years his senior, will never truly fall out of love with the father of her child. Knowing this, it is her small child whom he is drawn to, nurturing a tenderness awakened by the child whom he first meets as an infant:

Lane’s posture—her neck craned over you, her arms curled beneath the rounded corners of your body—was so gentle it looked severe in the muscles of her body. I knew that moment couldn’t be unseen, and in the smallest way, I felt myself age.

His relationship with this child, which grows and deepens over the years, is oftentimes the only reason why he chooses to remain in a romantic partnership that gradually loses its direction and purpose. His fondness for the child overshadows his sadness over the end of his relationship with Lane, leaving him to wonder whether his life would have taken a different turn had he been given the opportunity to remain in the child’s life: “It’s hard to know I won’t be anything for you. I’ll just be someone who held your hand once while you were afraid.” It is a loss that, like many losses felt by the men in this collection, he finds himself unable to completely mourn: “and though I know that no one is waiting, I can’t bring myself to linger.”

With a patient, graceful hand, Yee guides us through the confusions and missteps of his male protagonists to give us a better understanding of their heartaches. More often than not, these men are afraid to acknowledge their own vulnerability, preventing them from fully honoring their own desire to be loved and seen. “I Want to Be This to Your That” is a story in which the young protagonist finally grapples with these fears after a heartbreaking encounter with an ex-lover: “And maybe I could well something up in me again. Maybe I could get some of it back, some meaning, if I abandoned even a little bit of my want.” What follows, however, isn’t necessarily a desire to regain what he has lost, but rather a desire to transcend the flawed realities of this brief encounter:

I whispered a wish to be more than fevered flesh, more than cold sweat, a history of shivers, of covers pulled, the culmination of friction, and listened, waited, swayed to the shifting in the line. I have learned how to move. Teach me to be still.

Could grief be a kind of prayer, allowing us to directly confront the very thing that troubles us so that we can distill the essence of what we mourn? For this is what the stories in Mongolian Horse collectively propose: that by making ourselves vulnerable to our grief, we can arrive at a better understanding of what remains essential to us. And although this may not necessarily provide closure for many of Yee’s protagonists, who continue to nurse their heartaches when their stories come to a close, it is their brief experiences of transcendence that we are urged as readers to treasure in our own lives. In “Clean For Him The Ashes,” we are shown how these moments, nestled within the brief, quiet minutes of our days, give substance to our own personal struggles:

In its place, I felt a quickening—something quiet, patient, small and akin to grief, growing in the shadow of this good deed. I had no name for it just then, but in the order of my home, in the stillness of its embrace, I came to know it as reverence.

About the Reviewer

Monica Macansantos is a graduate of the Michener Center for Writers in Austin, Texas, and the International Institute of Modern Letters in Wellington, New Zealand. Her debut story collection, Love and Other Rituals, is out from Grattan Street Press. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Colorado Review, The Hopkins Review, Bennington Review, Literary Hub, and Electric Literature, among other places, and has been twice recognized as Notable in the Best American Essays. She has been awarded residencies at Hedgebrook, the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, the I-Park Foundation, and Storyknife Writers Retreat.