There is a scene in John McManus’s short story “The Feed Zone” in which a poor Southern lad participating in a bicycle race swerves off the road to cut off and confront his nemesis—a blond pacesetter with a featherweight bike and a heavy attitude problem. The story, like many in this collection, has to do with weight; the weight of the bikes, but also the weight of apathies, addictions, angers, and cruelties of one sort or another that seem to drag McManus’s characters into the earth even as they race across its surface. But for a story that’s obsessed with weight on a literal level—it speaks of “titanium skewers and water-bottle cages and all the expensive little things [the racers] would buy to make their bikes an eighth-ounce lighter”—”The Feed Zone” has a strange denouement: The blond biker pulls from his racing jersey first a cell phone (to call for help) and then a knife (with which to slash the protagonist’s tires). A cell phone? A knife? McManus must have in mind a gravity knife.
Stop Breakin Down is full of such moments—promising scenarios let down by unaccountable lapses in logic and language. McManus’s stories involve adolescents speeding down Maryland’s highways, barrel-rolling in the south of England, and drinking themselves to death in Oregon, but in almost every instance, the author’s powers of description fail to evoke the plight and pathos we’re meant to feel for his characters. McManus writes about maggots burrowing into skulls, and alliterates and onomatopoeiates like crazy (“Listen to the wind blow listen. Ooooraroorarooo,” one story begins). But this doesn’t make him Cormac McCarthy. He writes about kids on drugs and how it feels to be a drugged-up kid (it feels “whatever”), but it fails to make him Denis Johnson.
There are occasional lightning flashes here: A young man’s manic frustration at his inability to play the banjo comes across clearly and compellingly; the story of a teenage drug dealer who is expelled from high school and takes to peddling E over the Internet (“nobody born before 1976 can use the Web at all period, nobody before 1980 can use it good like us”) captures the inarticulate without resorting to it. But such moments are few and far between. Like his characters, McManus—who is 22, and will be entering an MFA program in the fall—seems to be trying to do too much too soon.