Colorado State University Center for Literary Publishing

Book Review

When I Can’t Sleep

By Robert Garner McBrearty

Reviewed By Nicholas Litchfield

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In this supremely entertaining volume of short stories, prizewinning micro-fiction maestro, Robert Garner McBrearty, teacher of fiction at the Lighthouse Writers Workshop North in Louisville, Colorado, stirs and startles and makes the reader shake with laughter. McBrearty, whose critically acclaimed narratives have been anthologized in the Pushcart Prize and widely published in prominent literary journals such as North American Review, StoryQuarterly, and the Missouri Review, is the author of three previous story collections as well as The Western Lonesome Society, a riotously comic, absurdist Western. His latest work, containing thirty flash-fiction pieces, some of which are previously unpublished, is a combination of razor-sharp reverie, pathos, and outrageously funny interactions between endearing but warped individuals who are frequently teetering on the brink of despair, folly, breakdown, or violence.

Despite their brevity, the author’s quirky narratives tend to be multilayered and imbued with wit, insight, and thoughtful reflection. In “The Wrong Call,” a surly husband’s critical remarks of his wife and her salad seem to wreck their marriage, and yet it’s apparent, through small telltale details, that the relationship has been spoiling for some time. This suggestion of something brewing beneath the surface is a key element in McBrearty’s writing. It is present again in stories like “Professor Sullivan Discovers the Force,” where an anxiety-ridden educator goes berserk. Plagued by feelings of inadequacy, decrepitude, depression, and fear, he finds a cathartic release when he adopts the guise of a deranged, raging psychopath.

Many of the author’s stories underscore that nothing is straightforward, nobody is psychologically stable, and nothing is quite as it seems. Case in point is the devilishly funny “Into the Basement” where the humanitarian efforts of an elderly husband and wife, who shelter homeless people in their basement during the winter months, suddenly appear very sinister when a homeless man whom they meet on the street claims to be their son. There’s a blistering flash of brilliance too behind “The Story of Your Life,” where the writer at the bar makes a mockery of the man next to him with his disturbingly skewed perspective. Another exceptional and unexpectedly twisted story is “The Meditation Master,” where violence erupts during a session of transcendent meditation. Remarkably, the narrator’s aggression is vindicated at the end when the meditation master exhibits his murderous intent.

Equally thrilling and ingenious is “Wake Me Up When It’s Over,” which curiously first appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. In this clever tale-within-a-tale, a husband dreams that his wife is having an affair, and becomes obsessed with the idea to the point where he cannot tell truth from fantasy. The opening passage offers a horrifying scenario, as the husband, Samuels, steps out of his tent in the Serengeti and discovers his wife has abandoned him, taking off with their guide—his best friend: “No jeep and they had left him to die with many miles to cross in this lion-infested, waterless, barren land.” The subsequent, vivid descriptions of Samuels’s gruesome journey across the Serengeti reflect the colossal emotional betrayal he feels, and the truth of his wife’s infidelity ultimately drives him to madness and destruction.

Time and again, McBrearty’s stories are tinged with darkness, though leavened by black humor, and his unconventional characters are driven to crime, depression, and cruelty. Interestingly, even on the brink of death a sense of hope permeates his stories. In “In the Blackness,” the calm and collected bank robber who has been shot twice remains hopeful about his chances of survival, even though he suspects that he has been buried alive. Similarly, in “The Armchair,” the husband, bleeding to death from a gun wound inflicted by his wife, does not let the thought of death mar his optimism. While he sits in his armchair, he coolly reflects on his marriage and considers his odds: “He hopes she hasn’t locked the door as that will slow the medics down. He’s never known her not to lock the door, but she’s never shot him before either so it’s a learning experience for both of them.”

One of McBrearty’s chief strengths is his flair for enriching his character’s voice with a sympathetic quality by underlining the commonsensical in their eccentric behavior. “It’s Free Today” and “The Cardboard Deer,” two tales where the author subverts the typical patient-therapist relationship, serve as good examples. In the first story, a disillusioned therapist struggling to cope with his work is depressed that he cannot offer practical help to his patient. While in the second story, a repressed patient is in love with his therapist. Too scared to tell his therapist anything that might reflect poorly on him, he remarks, “In our three months together, she has grown increasingly comfortable in my presence, and I would be quite comfortable too if it weren’t for all the personal questions, which strike me as a little rude. But she’s becoming frustrated because I have the good sense not to tell her anything personal about myself.”

There’s a likable daftness at the heart of these stories, and the fluid, shifting relationship in “The Cardboard Deer” is the sort that surfaces often in this collection. In the excellent “What Are My Chances?,” the reader relishes the antagonism between the sensitive, novice fiction writer and the harsh, intimidating editor whose tactless criticisms mask his high regard for the writer’s work. The profound psychological battle in “The Gardener” is even more fascinating. Here, a “mean” old gardener interrupts a man’s suicide attempts in order to berate him for inconveniencing others. The sidesplitting story, which swings from vindictive to abusive before developing into a purgative, father-son type of emotional showdown, is awe inspiring.

Some deeply touching and life-affirming masterpieces offset the outlandish, provocative, and wildly humorous stories. None are more deserving of praise than “Mr. O’Brien’s Last Soliloquy,” in which a ninety-four-year-old man, reflecting on the events that marked his life, voices his sorrows and regrets and offers pertinent advice. His gut-wrenching monologue serves as a life lesson: a reminder of the value of family and the importance of how we spend our time.

Acutely amusing, cleverly twisted, thoughtful, and tender, When I Can’t Sleep is a formidable collection of short yet indelibly powerful flash-fiction yarns—the absurdly brilliant kind that never grow old and you never tire of reading.

Nicholas Litchfield is the founding editor of the literary magazine Lowestoft Chronicle, author of the suspense novel Swampjack Virus, and editor of nine literary anthologies. He has worked in various countries as a tabloid journalist, librarian, and media researcher, and lives in western New York. Formerly a book reviewer for the Lancashire Evening Post and syndicated to twenty-five newspapers across the United Kingdom, he now writes for Publishers Weekly. Roam his website at nicholaslitchfield.com