A Review of Sin Eaters by Caleb Tankersley
Words By Victoria Bruick
Caleb Tankersley’s award-winning debut story collection Sin Eaters immediately caught my eye. With a promise to “illuminate the shadowy edges of the American Midwest” and explore themes of “religion, sex and desire, monsters and magic, and humor,” I knew I was in for a treat. And I’m happy to share, Tankersley’s stories did not disappoint.
What I loved most about these stories was the way we see characters grapple with the messiness of life in a way that is strikingly relatable while being like nothing I’ve read before. Each of Tankersley’s stories delves into the physical and emotional world of one central character. These narrative close-ups introduce us to unforgettable three-dimensional characters in a span of a few pages: unhappy Karen knitting and watching a movie on repeat in “Swamp Creatures,” caregiver Dean and his wife Barbara in the heart-wrenching final scene of “Never Been More in Love,” and stubborn grandmother Geraldine with her jaw-dropping experience as described in the magical “Sin Eaters.” From young Mellie, clinging to the sugar-filled memories of her grandfather in “Candy Cigarettes” to Logan, fighting with a miracle that’s getting in the way of his future plans in “The Apparition,” Tankersley’s characters represent a broad range of age, gender, sexuality, and political and religious ideologies.
Tankersley’s skill in characterization particularly shone for me in his portrayal of two clergymen. Initially, I was surprised that Reverend Billy Gadsen in “A Cross is Also a Sword” felt oddly similar to Jerry who we met earlier in the collection in “The Sea of Feed Corn.” Both are rural pastors that feel like they had no option but to return to the small town they grew up in after their progressive seminary education. I was disappointed at first that Tankersley didn’t differentiate the background of these two pastors more, but after giving it more thought, I think the similarity in their back stories highlights their distinct responses to the suffocating and dangerous religiosity of their communities.
In “Feed Corn,” Tankersley explores the inner turmoil of Jerry as he grapples with what it means to be a believer. His annoyance with his congregation is palpable, and we see him struggle to be himself. The story is primarily about Jerry as an individual and how he is stifled by the community. Tankersley takes a different narrative approach in “A Cross.” Reverend Billy is our central character, but we spend most of the story discovering the hidden secrets of the community. We get glimpses of Billy’s attempts to stay true to his progressive ideals in summary, but we also face the reality that Billy has spent decades in his role as a respectable pastor who, as far as the reader understands, has not publicly called out the worst evils of the community until the final moments of the story. Each story calls to question the feasibility of individual religious leaders to enact change in their congregations, and Tankersley answers that transforming a community is not a feat a lone preacher can accomplish.
Both stories have incredibly dramatic endings that replay in my memory (and I don’t want to spoil the details here!). I will only say, that while the pastors respond to pressure in different ways, they both make me think of the Bible verse: “Truly I tell you…no prophet is accepted in his hometown.” (Luke 4:24)
To me, the strength of Sin Eaters is the variety of its characters, settings, and plots that are threaded together with resonant themes. The collection invites us to consider the ways society molds us, pressures us, and oppresses us as individuals. In Tankersley’s cast of protagonists, we see people (and ghosts) who are defining themselves in response to the voices of their loved ones, community, and society as a whole.
There were a handful of stories that didn’t hit home for me, and perhaps that was because I didn’t feel like the characters were as developed. The flash fiction pieces “He Told Me A Story” and “Branson” felt more like vignettes as they left me with strong impressions of a scene or a character but didn’t quite achieve a narrative arc. “You’re Beautiful,” another flash piece in the collection,had more of a narrative arc but didn’t quite achieve the rich characterization I began to expect from each of Tankersley’s narratives.
A few weaker stories aside, this collection lived up to my anticipation. Tankersley writes with a specificity and honesty that immediately drew me in to whatever obscure, mundane, or psychological challenges his characters found themselves facing. If you enjoy character-driven stories and are intrigued by some larger-than-life scenarios, I’d definitely recommend you check out Sin Eaters.