Michael Kiggins’ debut novel, And the Train Kept Moving, follows Bryan Meigs, a twenty-something gay man with OCD living in Memphis during the early 2000s.
The book opens with a prologue, “Open-Ended,” that introduces Bryan in extremis. It’s two days after Christmas in 2003, and he has just committed a terrible act of violence. He’s at the Old Bridge across the Mississippi River, frantically coping with the aftermath of his crime. The bridge, we learn, holds a lot of meaning for Bryan and is “the best place in Memphis to let go of the past, hurtling it to the Mississippi a hundred feet below.” The story that follows, narrated by Bryan, is told in retrospect, describing his life and the series of events — both recent and remote — that have brought him to this moment.
A somewhat aimless young man, Bryan has recently graduated from college with a degree in psychology, but he isn’t putting it to use, at least not in terms of a career. He earns money as a dishwasher and spends most of his time going to clubs with friends, an activity he doesn’t really enjoy, where he tries — usually unsuccessfully — to meet men. He has more success getting drunk. His childhood trauma influences both of these activities, not for the better.
Kiggins, a longtime Nashville resident, writes clearly about Bryan’s ugliest experiences, as well as the effects they’ve had on him, leading to his self-medication and risky sexual behavior. His OCD complicates his attempts to build relationships, given that most of his friends and ex-lovers believe he doesn’t truly suffer, at least not to the extent he says he does.
Kiggins, though, shows exactly how Bryan does suffer, using the first-person narrative to reveal his obsessive internal monologue. For example, he even questions the efficacy of soap, the very product he uses constantly to try to wash away the germs that torment him:
Did it truly disinfect, or was that merely marketing? I understood how it was supposed to work, and even I couldn’t deny its smell, its odor so crisp and so closely paired with the very idea of cleanliness. Still, I had to wash my hands with scalding water at least seven times after shaking someone’s hand or rising from the toilet. As it did with the venal and mortal, my mind leveled all distinctions: if a sin was a sin, then a contaminant was a contaminant.
The issue, of course, with a first-person narrator is that we only receive their perception of events. Thus, when Bryan describes moments of violence or misunderstanding or even his own trauma, the reader either has to trust Bryan’s view or read parts of what he says with skepticism. Given that Bryan sometimes blacks out, his reliability comes into question. He wakes up on several occasions with injuries, unaware of how he received them and forced to rely on what others tell him, accounts he doesn’t always believe. The reader is left unsure whether Bryan’s interpretation is always the best one.
What centers Kiggins’ novel is the focus on place, as he presents a Memphis from the early 2000s, parts of which will be recognizable to anybody who was in the city at that time. Other locales are less likely to be familiar to people outside the LGBTQ+ community. The story moves from the clubs where Bryan and his friends hang out, places most Memphians wouldn’t know about, to a running route Bryan follows with a lover, Stefano: “From the parking lot, we ran to Cooper and then to Poplar, heading west down to Tucker. There we crossed Poplar and entered the park. I led Stefano past the Parkview Apartments and down Kenilworth. After a curve, that road turned into Overton Park Avenue.” People who truly know Memphis will know exactly where Bryan is, helping them see what he sees.
Hovering over the entire novel is the continued threat of HIV/AIDS, a reality that fuels Bryan’s anger over a particularly brutal sexual encounter. Since Kiggins sets his novel in the early 2000s, the virus is no longer the death sentence it was in the 1980s, but Bryan and his friends are still — most of the time —vigilant about protecting themselves and others. They must negotiate a more open sexual scene than the one from the previous generation, while also making sure to keep themselves and others safe.
And the Train Kept Moving ultimately shows its protagonist to be a confounding yet sympathetic character. There are times readers will feel an urge to shake Bryan, wanting him to see what he cannot see about himself, given how much he lives in his head. But there are other moments when his choices, even his worst choices, are all too understandable.
Kevin Brown is a high school English teacher and freelance writer in Nashville.
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