I was admittedly skeptical after reading the blurb on the back cover of M. Randal O’Wain’s Hallelujah Station and Other Stories likening O’Wain’s writing to Flannery O’Connor’s work. A bold and admiring claim to feature for a debut short story collection, it set a high mark for the narrative that I feared would be unattainable. However, by the time I reached the title story, I found myself nodding in agreement — the comparison is well-earned.
While O’Connor’s characters grapple with elusive redemption, O’Wain’s seek something more evasive — freedom and agency in their lives. Played out across a range of Southern urban settings from Memphis to Asheville, the stories feature a cast of modern misfits encompassing diverse voices largely missing from O’Connor’s canon. Queer, Black, adolescent, and disabled characters shine with discomfiting rigor, demanding purpose if not freedom from their circumstances. They remind me of Jacob, the man in the Bible who wrestled with an Angel all night until the Angel asked to be released. Jacob, a mortal, never could have defeated the supernatural, but he refused to let go without a blessing. Like Jacob, the characters in O’Wain’s stories do not expect to win, but they demand to be blessed.
From the first paragraph, each story immerses us in the characters’ world without a single frivolous description, which is not to say that the stories lack richness. I often found myself on the third or fourth page of a new story before remembering to sip my coffee or adjust my seat. The characters are mesmerizing in their complexity, and the settings are recognizable, populated with evidence of the modern era but somehow removed, whether by time (some distinctly take place in the 90s and early 2000s) or the insular culture of the South. The result is a grimy landscape with surprising glimpses of beauty and hope, much like the drawing made by the elusive character, Lee, with “electric blues and greens” of mildew in the opening story, “Salvation.”
Reading the stories in succession can feel as if you are tumbling from one rabbit hole to the next, each time encountering a new rush of information that — if done with any less skill — would be harried with authorial eagerness. However, the setups are executed flawlessly to create wholly formed universes that seem to exist entirely apart from one another.
“Strike Zone,” the story of a grown kid genius who has lost the ability to form new memories begins with this rapid intentionality: “Everything familiar to Gilbert had vanished into boxes labeled DINING ROOM or PANTRY. Papa’s mineral collection no longer filled the display shelves. Plastic covered the living room couch and chairs.” We are pulled immediately into a shared knowledge that something significant has either just occurred or will soon occur to upend Gilbert’s life forever, though neither of us knows what that thing is yet.
The transformative power of trauma is emphasized throughout the collection. Electrocuted into a catatonic state for most of her life, The Girl in “Hallelujah Station” is trapped in her body until a “broken” man rescues her from the asylum, unwittingly causing a second electrocution which frees her from her paralysis. “Before my husband, Manny Sylvester, rescued me and caused my second electrocution, he did not believe in miracles. Nor did I.” Shock, a synonym for trauma, acts as the catalyst for The Girl’s liberation, while in other stories it signals the annihilation of a character’s identity. The jolt of traumatic events seem to not only be inevitable but necessary to their development, for better or worse.
Children and adolescents feature as protagonists that are as complex and flawed as their adult counterparts. The quest for freedom and agency is strongest with them, manifesting in surprising ways. In the story “North of Windell,” sixteen-year-old Ruth and her adult boyfriend, Max, are “tied, exiled as victim and perpetrator, and jailed by the truth that these titles fluctuated” after Ruth releases a sex tape of the two of them as an act of revenge. Ruth resents the limitations of her age and rejects her role as a victim, while slowly coming to accept the trauma inflicted on her by the older Max. “She had destroyed his life, she knew, but he had done the same to her.” Ruth finds freedom in accepting that she is wounded and must heal when she concedes, perhaps bitterly, “He did have more freedom than her, after all.”
O’Wain centers young people affected by physical abuse, human trafficking, sexual predation, substance abuse, and murder without dictating moral lessons or leveraging these themes for shock factor. He sets an unassuming gaze on the victims at the heart of the trauma, giving them voices to say what they wish, which is sometimes nothing at all. We are forced to accept the realities of these stories without the luxury of reeling over the unsavory details — the events unfold in real time and we find ourselves reacting along with the characters themselves.
“Shadow Play” is an artful example of this, told from the perspective of Norm, a neighborhood boy who learns over the course of the story that his best friend, Bobby, has been hit and killed by a car. From the start, we enter Norm’s childhood world of make-believe as he processes the events of the day and his interactions with adults who try to protect him from reality. Every character Norm engages with has a pretend or “shadow” role (The Boa, Sarge, The Miller) which melts away as the events take shape (the boy’s sister, Norm’s father, the coroner). By the end, we have emerged with Norm from the innocence of childhood to the cold realization: “Bobby’s gone.”
Regardless of age, the characters display a disarming self-awareness which adds to the complexity of their development in the stories. In “Rembrandt Behind Windows,” fifteen-year-old Damien acts out after his mother dies from exposure to black mold on a jobsite. As Damien is riding his bike, he recalls precisely — intimately — how his mother became exposed as if revealing a secret: “Her mouth and nose were hidden behind a thin paisley bandana while a double-filtered oxygen mask had dwarfed Damien’s head. Why was I even there? And if he hadn’t been there, he knew now, she would have worn the respirator instead.” The exacting, visceral image of his mother protecting her son pierces the exterior of a rebellious teenager to reveal unexpected layers of discernment and guilt. This sense of responsibility for his mother’s death is what truly haunts him. Damien finds himself simultaneously resenting the helplessness of being “too young,” and the fact that his youth has been ripped from him by this loss. “There was so much to remember and yet he was just a kid, he knew that, and he knew soon he’d be like Pops, like Moms was before she died — tired and distracted, not young anymore.”
From start to finish, the characters of Hallelujah Station and Other Stories grapple with overwhelming circumstances, refusing to let go. Like Jacob with the Angel, some emerge from their struggles victorious, some wandering, and, all of them, changed.
Hallelujah Station and Other Stories
By M. Randal O’Wain
Autumn House Press
Published September 26, 2020