Author Kevin McIlvoy and the art of satire

AMERICA THE TRAGIC: In his latest novel, One Kind Favor, local author Kevin McIlvoy examines racial violence in a small, rural North Carolina town. Author photo by Taylor Johnson

In local author Kevin McIlvoy’s forthcoming novel, One Kind Favor, a character by the name of Woolman offers a newcomer to the book’s fictional rural town of Cord, N.C., a bit of insight about the community.

“It can get weird here,” he says.

The same is true of the novel as a whole, which comes out Tuesday, May 18. As a writer, McIlvoy isn’t interested in the realist tradition.

“I try to invite the maximum wildness into my work from the very first draft,” he says.

In One Kind Favor, that wildness takes the form of ghosts intermingling with the living, and in one instance, a former soul reincarnated as a mockingbird.

With 50 years of writing behind him and 13 published works under his belt, the question McIlvoy continues to ask himself as a writer is, “How far can the wildness go?”

Satire and tragedy

Yet along with the surreal, McIlvoy’s novel is steeped in the very real and not-too-distant past — specifically, the 2016 election of Donald Trump and the reemergence of the white nationalist movement. These two elements fuel some of the author’s harshest criticisms and sharpest satire within his latest work.

But at the book’s center is tragedy: the lynching of a Black teenager named Lincoln Lennox and the subsequent cover-up that follows his murder.

As with the featured political theater, the lynching is based on true events. In 2014, Lennon Lacy, a Black youth, was discovered hanged by the neck from a swingset in Bladenboro, N.C. Though official reports ruled it a suicide, discrepancies in the evidence cast doubt among Lacy’s family and friends — as well as the author.

As an art form, one of the novel’s most appealing features for McIlvoy is its ability to examine humanity’s contradictory nature. “For instance,” the author notes, “one of the paradoxical questions in this book is: How can the people in my beloved state of North Carolina — people that I really do believe are loving, good, deep-hearted people — how is it that they can be so hateful, so shallow and so destructive in the very same moment?”

McIlvoy does not provide a clear answer to this question within One Kind Favor. Instead, the author asks his readers to dwell upon and feel the unspeakable and often devastating realities that the human experience brings.

Profound shift

And yet, within these same pages, McIlvoy hits comedic note after comedic note — be it through the townspeople’s distinction between an “untimely” versus a “poorly timed” death, or the fact that local members of a conservative political foundation regularly provide the people of Cord “nutrition and health and lifestyle advice (and free expired grocery items stamped Not Expired) that dismissed the most recent seven decades of science.”

“The most powerful humor I believe in the world is the humor that causes you shame,” says McIlvoy. “After we laugh, something is different in us; something is more vulnerable than before.”

Embracing one’s vulnerability, the author continues, is among the greatest gifts a novel can provide its reader.

And that is certainly what reading One Kind Favor offers. Readers are exposed to the town’s flawed beauty and humor as well as its horrors and inhumanity; and by extension, these same readers are nudged to consider their own conflicting impulses and inherent contradictions.

If they choose to do so, McIlvoy believes, readers will find themselves more present within their everyday lives.

“That’s also the reason that as a reader of the novel, I value it so highly,” McIlvoy says of the art form. “It shifts your condition as a person. And I do think it shifts it very profoundly.”

“And if you’re fortunate [as a writer],” he later adds, “some readers of your work are going to feel that, too.”


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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. His writing has appeared in Gulf Coast, the Miracle Monocle, Juked and elsewhere. His debut novel, The Wind Under the Door, is now available.

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