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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Book Review: The Butterfly Collector by Fred McGavran

Review of The Butterfly Collector stories, by Fred McGavran, Black Lawrence Press, 2009. By Debrah Lechner.

Fred McGavran is a hard writer to categorize.

Reviewers often focus upon his fiction that revolves around law and justice, or the lack of it. He has been compared to John Grisham, for good reason, because McGavran is also a lawyer, like Grisham, and is similarly adept at convincingly relaying the details of the legal world. He is arguably better at characterization than Grisham, however, and I would gladly follow the character of the lawyer Harris Scintilton into a novel, or several of them.

We meet Harris in two stories in this volume. In the first encounter, "A Gracious Voice," he is older, calm, soft-spoken, trusted, analytical, cynical, manipulative and selfish. He exploits the fears of a dying judge. In the second encounter, The Forgiveness of Edwin Watkins, he is a young, idealistic lawyer who unexpectedly succeeds in freeing his suffering client through the mercy of a dying judge who finds his heart─albeit in a hat box. It appears the character of Harris Scintilton has been ruined, but there is hope for redemption. The last line reads that Scintilton will remember “. . . the strange acts of grace that sometimes proceeded from the dying and from the mouth of God.”

Fred McGavran has a love of the grotesque, as already seen. His strews body parts through his fiction. He meditates on infirmity, dementia and death. He includes generally unwelcome supernatural intervention. This leads some critics to characterize him as a horror writer. Well, Fred McGavran’s horror exhibits an unusual but effective component of compassion, and his compassion is redolent with irony, wry wit, and not a little slapstick.

I see McGavran as a humorist. I will go so far as to compare him to David Sedaris, though they have nothing in common with the exception that they have both written very funny Christmas stories. David Sedaris’ Six to "Eight Black Men" is read aloud annually during my Christmas celebration, and now so will McGavran’s "The Annunciation of Charles Spears."

In that story, an angel in a raincoat who reeks of alcohol and tobacco, who has been hitting the sauce for unspecified millenia, stumbles into a Christmas pageant enacted by kindergartners. They’re lacking angels, so he reveals his dirty and matted wings and volunteers to help out.

The congregation is not amused, but I sure was. The grandmother of one child upbraids the hapless rector, then said to the angel:

“And that was the worst Magnificat I ever heard!”
“Guess you had to be there, lady,” the Angel replied.

There is a colorful palette of genres to choose from in this volume by McGavran. If you’re a fan of all of them, Christmas is coming early.

Fred McGavran graduated from Kenyon College and Harvard Law School. A practicing attorney, he is a candidate for ordination as a deacon in the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Ohio. The Ohio Arts Council awarded him a $10,000 Individual Achievement Award in 2009 for his story "The Reincarnation of Horlach Spenser," which the Harvard Review is publishing. He won the 2008 St. Lawrence Prize for The Butterfly Collector. McGavran won the 2007 Writers Digest Short Story Contest in the horror category, the 2004 John Reid/Tom Howard Contest, the 2003 Raymond Carver Award from Humboldt State University, and has placed in a number of other literary and screenwriting contests. His stories have appeared in Pearl Magazine, Rosebud, Gray's Sporting Journal, Dreams & Visions,, Short Story International, and other literary magazines and e-zines.

Read "Watching Time," another award-winning 2004 short story by Fred McGavran.
Purchase The Butterfly Collector for your personal library.

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