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The all-embracing fiction of Alex Mindt

Finding fathers

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Male of the Species
by Alex Mindt
Delphinium Books, 239 pp.

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Alex Mindt gets around. According to his bio, he "has lived in every region in the country" and has had more than 50 jobs, from strawberry picker to professional gambler. He has written plays and screenplays, including the award-winning feature film Nowheresville, which he also produced and directed. And he's only 38.

The stories in his debut fiction collection, Male of the Species, are, like their author, all over America. They are set in northern New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Vermont, west Texas, Washington state (both sides), Pasadena, Calif., Iowa and Nebraska.

The protagonists are wide-ranging, too. There's an elderly Hispanic man, a couple of young white boys, a black dentist with a teenaged, shock-artist son, a lesbian whose father molested her, even a Vietnamese boatperson who impersonates Elvis in Las Vegas.

What connects these people and places? Mindt tells you himself on his MySpace page: "Do you have, did you have, or have you ever had a father? Then this book is for you!" In case that isn't clear enough, this is his response to "Who I'd Like to Meet": "People who love to read, people who eat breakfast, and anyone who breathes in and then breathes out."

To appeal to everyone in the context of fathers is a goal at once generous and reductive, gregarious and messianic, a little naïve and a lot ambitious. Yet Mindt's prose has a natural storyteller's fluency about it—it's as if he sits down and these tales just fly out of him. Each one moves quickly and fluidly. He is genuinely eager to plumb the depths of his characters, but Mindt's tone has an optimistic lightness about it. His stories are often serious but they're rarely heavy.

This may owe partially to Mindt's relationship to his characters. Given how much they vary, and how different some of them are from their creator, he can only sink into them so far. There's a pervading sense that, despite his clear ardor and affection for each character, and the lengths Mindt goes to in extending himself to them, he's ultimately forced to imagine (rather than know) what they're feeling. At times the strain of that effort is evident, and there are occasional but inevitable stock moments or thoughts that have to serve as placeholders for authentic detail. Not many of us, after all, know a Vietnamese Elvis-impersonating boatperson.

Yet the writing is never disingenuous. It is virtually free of irony, and Mindt's delight in the whole wide world comes through in his accounts of its time-honored natural and cultural phenomena: birds in migration and Texas high school football. Mindt's a seeker, an heir to the tradition of troubadours. He wants to understand everything, even love everything—and he wants to sing about it—and his interests in Male of the Species are omnivorous and avid. (His lists of favorites on his MySpace page are long, diverse and exhaustive.) He may be over-inclusive, but Mindt is also fully devoted.

And what about those fathers? It's one of the threadbarest themes in literature, and Mindt repeatedly draws from its oldest wells—unwanted pregnancies, abusive dads, adultery—in ways that sometimes feel unnecessary, convenient, or at least pro forma. But even then you don't get the feeling that his writing is lazy or narrow or complacent. When you've absorbed all of America by age 38 and you want to squeeze it back out as literature, the task must feel daunting. You may have been everywhere, but you have to start somewhere.

Alex Mindt will read from and sign copies of Male of the Species at the Regulator Bookshop, 720 Ninth St. in Durham, on Tuesday, May 8, at 7 p.m.

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