Christopher Murphy’s short fiction collection, Burning All the Time, feels like pulling back a curtain to peer in on a strange and hidden world. The collection of twenty-three shorts, with stunning cover art by Roy Boney, bursts with all things NEOK: dark humor, deep affection, wonder and dread. The book is delivered with an undertow, much like this land that keeps pulling us back, even against our own will at times.
Within these contemporary sketches the reader comes to understand characters on an intimate basis. Murphy manages to capture the people of NEOK so well that we know them. The reader continues to mull over the possibilities long after the book is closed. Was it her, one wonders?
Burning carries a mysterious thread throughout its pages, with a distinctive style akin to Ondaatje’s Billy the Kid. Its secrets are interwoven with skillful technique, sometimes apparent and other times camouflaged, providing the reader with a satisfying intellectual pursuit. Murphy’s powers of observation prove exceptionally keen here. He captures our families and friends, even our enemies, with such precision that it almost feels embarrassing. He caught us. He got us down.
It is written that a Joycean epiphany is “showing forth” a disclosure of one’s authentic inner self. That masterful literary technique is on full display here, with the writer disclosing his affection for the flawed gem of this land and her people, even as he lays her bare. This is a work from an observer who’s been around long enough, invested enough tears and blood of his own, to have earned a turn at the mic to speak on the subject. Murphy doesn’t waste time or words getting down to business from the first turn of the page.
Herein, we experience Tahlequah and northeastern Oklahoma as a landscape with a hole; a figurative exploration of concealed caves where once there existed a shallow sea. We know because we still find the fossils of those old sea creatures in our hills. It is representative of the holes and fossils left behind in us, bored by generations of grief and trauma that we constantly seek to fill. It is a collection of broken hearts rendered too tough to do anything about it except to rage. We experience this place as one of isolation and concealed honor. He takes us on an outsider’s tour of the Trail of Tears exhibit and helps us understand the emotional complications of the experience. For some, the subject is too complicated to fully unpack. It’s ok for Murphy to say it out loud because he has soldiered alongside. He gets to tell the truth, fiction as it may be.
The English professor’s grasp of technique is awe-inspiring. He builds sentences like skyscrapers, grand in scope yet meticulous down to the element. One such example: “There are elements in this town like carcinogens: everything is literal; there are pocket cruelties, apathies and disenfranchisement; distrust in general.” How did he do that?
Our very own dark humor is on display here – the kind of jokes we make about our own families but, by God, nobody else better. Sometimes the work is naught but pure, ecstatic joy: “they vaped moon pie weed until it steamed roaches out the wall“.
Christopher Murphy demonstrates in Burning All the Time that while he is, by definition, an Observant Transplant here, his words feel like the kind you’d allow from an uncle. He has witnessed it all: Del Rancho, e-coli, Tyson chicken houses, Travis Meyer and Jose’s Mini-Video …
It’s too late now, y’all, we have been exposed. “A weary world rejoices.”
Burning All The Time is published by Mongrel Empire Press. http://mongrelempire.org/catalog/fiction/BurningAllTheTime.html?fbclid=IwAR2NtpC4zppKPQm8pccLXSLXZ9VnkDkGnYSf_TWma6b_6QYMxGIgBcotA-A