Michael Hopping brings message in a bottle
by Rob Neufeld
A review of “MacTiernan’s Bottle: Stories”
Tanner had just discovered the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe burned into a broiled “piece of French bread slathered with Italian dressing.” He and his tenant, Chris “Rambo” Ramirez, plunge into a commercialization of the miracle.
The story is one of 14 in Hopping’s collection, “MacTiernan’s Bottle,” a rich mix of story gems and intellectual amalgams. Hopping lives in Asheville, took classes in the Great Smokies Writing program at UNCA, and is a member of a local writers’ group that discusses a different great short story each week.
Laid off as a psychiatrist at Blue Ridge Health when government funding had fled in 2001, “his pen,” he notes on his website, “has celebrated its freedom from Big Pharma by capturing the wild things of the imagination on paper.”
“Toasted” is one of Hopping’s gems. The dialogue is natural and punchy. The story keeps taking revealing turns, opening interesting side-paths. The ending is a three-skip stone, with a different picture for each skip.
Along with such stories, Hopping includes parables that sound like the kind of science fiction that features aberrant geniuses, such as the supernormal mutant called “the fabulous idiot” in Theodore Sturgeon’s “More than Human.”
The character type is a classic one. It comes out in Southern Gothic fiction, too, including Hazel Motes, the wounded war veteran and street preacher who follows his inner visions in Flannery O’Connor’s “Wise Blood.”
Hopping often casts outsider artists.
Osbourne MacTiernan, in Hopping’s title story, had gone missing and, according to a Wikipedia entry, had died long before Clayton, a carpenter and lapsed woodworking artist, uncovered MacTiernan’s fresco behind a false wall in a Western North Carolina B&B.
The seascape features a bottle hovering on the crest of a wave that engulfs a community.
“As a creative wannabe myself,” Clayton comments, “nothing used to seem more straightforward than an artist’s hunger for connection.” But now, he sees the light: genius and obscurity might go hand in hand.
This theme is very strong in “The Painter of Kitsch,” in which a disfigured loner salvages siding from a barn that had been the site of a childhood nightmare. The recurrence of this trope makes you feel that a screed hides behind parts of the script.
Yet, even in Hopping’s declamatory pieces, characters dance and humor flourishes.
Clayton has a sidekick, Raz “Thang” Thanguld, his electrician, who, like Rambo in “Toasted,” represents a far-out fringe of society.
“Nature is fractal,” Thanguld pronounces. “The mark of the beast is oversimplification.” When challenged on why he sees the devil’s hand in the wall painting, he intones, “Res ipsa loquitor.”
“He means,” Rusty, the B&B owner, quips, “the Thang speaks for itself.”
You can see three solutions of Hopping’s alchemy in “MacTiernan’s Bottle.”
The story, “Avatars,” is a medium mix. It begins: “Once, Kafka tells us, a stressed out salesman could wake from unsettling dreams to find himself transformed into a capsized bug and do nothing about it but flail his pitiful bug legs.” Now, we’re more in control, the narrator explains, with Pandora and “The Matrix” as precedents.
Two airplane passengers, a man and a woman, sit cramped side-by-side, the story reveals. They have a long conversation. With delicate movement toward intimacy, they eventually and briefly meet in a shared fantasy life.
Hopping is working on the problem of how to make eccentric imaginativeness work in society.
Then there’s the story, “Every Curry Tells a Story,” in which chef skills play the role of saving grace. Despite the convention of artistic genius and the intrusion of recipes, “Every Curry” primarily presents a beautifully realized family dynamic.
The narrator, a college-aged woman, begins, “I don’t know how girls are supposed to feel about their dads; I’ve reads all sorts of things.”
Dad works for “an international services company,” for which he makes unexplained trips overseas. “The fact that he wore a full beard for years after 9/11 was, I’m sure, a complete coincidence,” the daughter cracks.
Dad is also married to another wife in Belgium, and Mom is cool with that. Dad is wonderfully caring toward his U.S. family, and demonstrates that with the narrator by teaching her his culinary art.
Before running off for a surprise overseas call, Dad goes with the family to the younger daughter’s go-kart competition. Hopping devotes five pages to the girl’s races.
After losing the lead in the big race, the girl states, “I couldn’t see. I turned and couldn’t see anything to my left but the inside of this stupid thing,” her too-big helmet.
She’s a total professional, a kind of artist. The expanded notion of artist—including car-racer and marriage-worker—creates a broad range of mature characters, each with their own confident stance.
It is not difficult to see the successful novel that will come from Hopping—full of banter, a mature calmness, and well-realized characters—as long as not too many get up on a soapbox.
MacTiernan’s Bottle: Stories by Michael Hopping (Canton: Pisgah Press trade paper, 247 pages, $14.95).
Congratulations on the new book! Looks like people are starting to notice. Best of luck.