Remember back when stuffy book reviewers (the kind who don't have jobs anymore) used to dismiss McSweeney's as a faddish vanity press? And the accusations that the publisher only put out books by white male friends of Dave Eggers with childish preoccupations? In the beginning, of course, when the McSweeney's list was very small, those accusations had a certain kind of truth to them; Eggers will have to do a lot more charity work before he can atone for the sin of siccing Neal Pollock on the world. But two new books from McSweeney's provide a perfect counterargument to those early charges and show how much the press has grown.
The protagonist of Jessica Anthony's debut novel, The Convalescent, couldn't be more unlike the authorial stand-ins who usually play the modern literary hero. Rovar Ákos Pfliegman is a dwarf who sells meat out of a dilapidated bus that doubles as his home. Pfliegman suffers from an array of crippling physical ailments. He considers a very tall weed growing near his bus to be one of his best friends, and he devotes his spare time to chronicling the long-forgotten branches of his family tree (including "The Great Leg-Wrestling Champion of Tenth-Century Hungary").
There's nothing ironic or glossy or otherwise typically McSweeney's about The Convalescent; it's a grimy, grubby book about dead and living meat. It's no coincidence that Geek Love author Katherine Dunn has written an adoring blurb for this book; Pfliegman could have been abducted from Love one night while Dunn was sleeping. Anthony has sketched a compelling character who inspires repulsion and pity and a weird kind of romantic love in the reader.
More surprising than Pfliegman, though, is Gary Gray, the main character of James Hannaham's new debut novel, God Says No. An overweight 19-year-old African-American man, Gray is an evangelical Christian who loves to take his brand-new wife to Disney World. He also secretly has sex with anonymous men in public bathrooms. He's the kind of tragic closet case who doesn't even possess a vocabulary to describe his longings.
As Gray learns the truth about himself (even while lying to his family and fellow churchgoers), the reader experiences the queasy flush of excitement along with him: "Miquel really enjoyed my big body, romping all over it like a kid on a muddy hill... I was real surprised that anybody could like the way I looked." No doesn't make easy jokes about evangelicalism or body image or sexual politics—Gray's relationship with God becomes complicated as he evolves, but it never goes away. Instead, it charges headlong into those issues and, with Hannaham's compassionate voice guiding the way, finds room to accept everyone. In this world, Hannaham (and Anthony and McSweeney's) is saying, there's time and patience enough for everyone to speak their mind and seek a little understanding.