Medium Hero, a debut collection by musician Korby Lenker, confronts everyday perils with humor and honesty. In an affable voice and a self-deprecating tone, Lenker surveys the world around him and questions what it means to exist in today’s society. Together the stories—some true, some made-up—are a playful yet heartfelt invitation to join Lenker on a journey through the memories and dreams that have made a lasting mark on his soul.
The book, which grazes just over 225 pages, is comprised of twenty-seven short stories and flash-fiction pieces that tackle an array of subjects like modern love, social justice, spirituality, and creative struggle. As a touring musician, Lenker wrote much of the book between hotel lobbies, tour vans, and green rooms. His punchy and anecdotal style—in one scene, he describes the sky as “a dead grey yawn opening overhead”—surely reflects his life on the road. Still, the actual setting of most of the stories in Medium Hero is Nashville, where Lenker currently lives and works. The action is situated against the backdrops of West End, East Nashville, a BBQ joint in Dickson, a local McDonald’s.
Medium Hero moves between fiction and nonfiction, with some stories referencing the actual experiences of the author himself and others assuming the narration of Lenker’s alter ego: Simon Cicada, a curious and naïve young man who tends to insert himself into complicated situations with strangers. It’s not always clear which pieces are fiction and which are closer to personal essays, though the reference to Lenker’s own name can sometimes be a clue. In “Birthday Cards,” for example, he writes, “I could hear the echo of my own laughter bouncing off the surrounding brick houses. I am the youngest old man I know. Happy Birthday, Korby.” But in “This is Probably a Clue of Some Kind,” a character strolls through a park and thinks to himself, “All around me gold leaves are dropping from their branches like daredevils, and I think, wow, just like me.” But which “me” are the daredevils like? Through this blurred line between reality and fantasy, Lenker’s world becomes both mysterious and magical.
A central theme in the book is a desire to escape mediocrity, whether professional or personal. Lenker explores difficult scenarios involving failure, inaction, and unfulfilled expectations. The book takes its title from a story in which the narrator flirts with the idea of killing himself by jumping out the window of his friend’s high-rise apartment. He debates with himself about whether suicide is a brave or cowardly act: “Taking pills was not heroic, no. Shooting yourself, maybe. Cutting your wrists, definitely. Throwing yourself off a building was somewhere between shooting and pills. Medium heroism, then.” But Lenker’s characters are rarely heroes; instead they’re figures paralyzed with inaction, as in “Superman and Lois Lane,” when the narrator confesses that he can’t pay his rent and cannot make sense of the world, and “This is Probably A Clue of Some Kind,” in which the protagonist fails to intervene during a racist exchange at a McDonald’s.
The search for God is another prevalent theme that winds its way through Lenker’s prose. His characters are often torn between faith and the lack of it, or are in a desperate search for God, love, or a true connection with another person. In “The Cool Green Hills of Earth Are Not Enough,” the main character thinks he is “a lost person, sucking mud through his teeth, looking for God”; in “Bus Stop,” the narrator makes a fleeting yet significant bond with some men sitting at a bus stop.
Nina Simone once said, “It’s an artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, to reflect the times.” Lenker achieves that goal, offering a collage-art portrait of contemporary life. “[I] looked at the bluing twilight sky and thought how very lucky I was to be alive,” writes Lenker in “New Year’s Day and The Great Snake.” “To feel cold and warm, to be inspired and disillusioned, to bleed and be healed, to see my laugh poke out and dissolve in the air before me, to feel lonely and loved. It was so good. This life.”
Sara Estes is a journalist and fiction writer based in Nashville. She is the lead arts writer at The Tennessean, a columnist for Burnaway, and an editor at Number.