Thomas H. McNeely
Texas Review Press
Paperback, ISBN 9781680032710, 205 pages
June 28, 2022
Houston writer Thomas H. McNeely’s new book, Pictures of the Shark, is a tightly written and often emotionally gripping collection of eight interconnected short stories. Set mostly in Houston, the stories center around Buddy Turner, the overly aware and emotionally troubled son of two frequently estranged parents, Jimmy and Margot Turner.
Pictures of the Shark also shares story and character links to McNeely’s debut book, his prizewinning 2014 novel Ghost Horse. In both works, there is a focus on Buddy trying to decipher life and his feelings while being both a pawn and a bargaining chip in a dysfunctional family.
Early in the new work, Buddy, an only child, frequently blames his mother for his father’s extended absences, lies, dalliances, and drinking. Buddy craves his father’s attention and approval, yet he also expresses hate for Jimmy and mostly stays close to his mother for love and survival. Meanwhile, as McNeely writes, Margot believes she’s doing the best she can within bad circumstances. “Jimmy had insisted on marriage. But Jimmy, it turned out, had no real interest in being married. He had hated it, in fact, and took his rage at being trapped out on her. He’d never hit her; he’d needled and insulted and cheated on her. He didn’t even have the guts to properly leave her.”
McNeely’s connected stories illuminate the emotional scars Buddy carries from childhood to adolescence and on to adulthood when he is on his own. In the story “King Elvis,” for example, Buddy turns his anger at his again-absent father into anger at his mother. Jimmy has learned that his eight-year-old son is fascinated with trying to imitate Elvis Presley’s moves and looks. Jimmy sends Elvis concert tickets to Margot and Buddy for a show in Houston. Buddy angrily declares he won’t go, but his mother tells him: “We’re still a family. We have to act like one.” At the concert, Buddy gripes that Elvis is “fake” and begins criticizing his father: “I don’t see why we have to ask him for everything. I don’t see why we have to do what he says.” To that, Margot responds: “He’s your father. We can’t just run away.” Buddy, however, challenges her attempts to hold things together. “What if he doesn’t come back?” He couldn’t resist; it was like touching a cut. “Maybe he won’t come back. Maybe I’ll just go live with him.”
In the book’s title story, Jimmy takes Buddy on a long trip to see a Hollywood Jaws exhibit and theme park. Jimmy says he wants Buddy to get to know him better. However, Buddy’s father also has brought along his latest girlfriend and demands that Buddy keep her a secret when he makes his nightly phone calls to his mother in Houston.
Along with winning the Gival Press Novel Award for his debut book, Ghost Horse, McNeely has received National Endowment for the Arts, Wallace Stegner, and MacDowell Colony fellowships for fiction writing. His short stories and nonfiction pieces have appeared in publications ranging from The Atlantic to Ploughshares and Texas Monthly.
Pictures of the Shark is an important book for its clear writing, its insights into a seldom-explored form of family dysfunction and its capability to leave readers with lasting images and feelings.
Thomas H. McNeely is an East Side Houston native. He has published short stories and non-fiction in The Atlantic, Texas Monthly, Ploughshares, and many other magazines and anthologies, including Best American Mystery Stories and Algonquin Books’ Best of the South. His stories have been short-listed for the Pushcart Prize, Best American Short Stories and O. Henry Award anthologies. He has received National Endowment for the Arts, Wallace Stegner, and MacDowell Colony fellowships for his fiction. His first book, Ghost Horse, won the Gival Press Novel Award and was shortlisted for the William Saroyan International Prize in Writing. He currently teaches in the Stanford Online Writing Studio and at Emerson College, Boston.