The Rock Cycle: Essays
By Kevin Honold
University of New Mexico Press
(2021, 211 pp.)
Birds figure prominently in this collection of far-ranging, introspective essays by first-time author and Santa Fe teacher Kevin Honold. As a young man trying to find his purpose in life, floundering after a deployment in the First Gulf War, reading avidly from ornithology guidebooks, the narrator hits on a term that resonates deeply with him: vagility.
It "refers to a [bird] species' ability to roam, to wander, to adapt to new elements, to settle new grounds. It's an unevenly distributed talent, I suspect, among kestrels no less than among humans."
The narrator of these dozen essays, mostly published previously in literary journals, is both a young man and 30 years older, who roams without apparent destination, even spends a stint as a Peace Corps teacher in Mongolia. Raised in Cincinnati, he takes up cycling across the Southwest after some years of drifting, and constantly switches back to memories of his 1989-1991 military deployment in Iraq and Saudi Arabia. It was a time of confusion for him, when he went AWOL briefly ("I didn't want to die in an oil field"), then returned ("I believed the decision to return enabled me, in the intervening years, to live with myself"), and he suffered the blowback from his colleagues.
In the two opening essays, "King Oedipus" and "Light Discipline," the narrator writes of his bewilderment in the army stationed in Dammam, Saudi Arabia, 1990: "I did not feel like a soldier, but an uninvited observer, a visitor of small consequence. What could all this possibly have to do with me?" He identifies with Oedipus, banished and demonized for his crimes.
He casts about for how to live his life, and after getting stuck back in Cincinnati on parole following an arrest for marijuana possession -- "Everything struck me as flimsy, vandalized and wicked" -- he finds refuge in books, starting with the ancient Greeks he reads in the library. He becomes obsessed with the great questions of philosophy: what is God, love, the soul, perfection?
Befriending Daniel, a homeless panhandler in the city park, the narrator tries to help him, bringing him clothing and food. But Daniel's mental and physical health deteriorates, and in the end, our narrator cannot bring himself to take Daniel home: what would the neighbors say?
Reading the anonymous 14th-century English work of Christian spirituality, "The Cloud of Unknowing," the narrator realizes he has failed the test of humility. Longing, he recognizes, for "lost chances, or for love, or for some quiet space to breathe [is] the core condition of human life. And this longing takes the shape of an individual's response to another's suffering."
On his relentless, self-punishing cycling trips through Southwestern deserts, he meets a couple, James and Beth, who personify the kindness of strangers. They accept him, invite him to live at their new farm outside of Kansas City, teach him about birds and the grace to be himself.
Author Honold stikes universal themes of seeking and forgiveness in these fine, often recondite essays ranging over areas of geology ("The Rock Cycle"), early exploration ("A Brief History of the Huron") geology ("A Natural History of New Mexico"), even Mongolian society ("The Western Terminus").
By Gina Yates
Three Rooms Press (2021, 262 pp.)
Boyfriend problems plague this narrator, a young woman who loves animals and yard sales more than she loves most people. Hope Townsend has a kind face, apparently, and works happily caring for elders in San Lazaro, California, until her unguarded remarks on death and relationships rub the relatives of her seniors in care the wrong way.
"Well," she offers when one of her charges dies, "at least she doesn't have to fight anymore."
Hope doesn't like conflict, and certainly not with her vaguely committal, handsome boyfriend of off hours, Nathan, who won't let on that they are even in a relationship, after six months, then two years. Indeed, Hope never seems to understand why she sleeps with the men she does.
Hope is secretly reading the books of relationship coach Brooks Nixon, whose work she finds at yard sales ("she'd seen him on Donahue once a few years back"). Nixon's "3M" advice on getting a man to love you forever speaks to Hope, though she won't admit it: manage, manipulate and maneuver.
Hope moves from elder caregiver to manager for Mystic Partners, which gives psychic advice over the phone. It is not a move that evolves with an edification of our narrator.
Yates is a first novelist, living in Albuquerque, and a daughter of novelist Richard Yates (who died in 1992).
A curiously disjointed work, spanning a time period from the early 1990s to 2010, when Hope reaches 40, the novel seems to grow more confessional, without allowing the protagonist to develop and find her due satisfaction. And we root for her, even when Nixon emerges with a change-of-heart book that turns all of his fans against him: "Better Off Alone."