Mast Year (poem)

Posted by ractrose on 9 Mar 2022 in Art, Poems

Digital art of text with watery background




Mast Year

a novel




In this tragedy set on an American farm, Turnstile Prize-winning author Mays McKnight unfolds the history of the hardscrabble Cuniff clan. The year is 1985. Roseann Cuniff is failing, her decades of secret drinking taking their toll in symptoms of dementia. Son Ryman and son-in-law Hal play cat-and-mouse over the fate of the Cuniff land. Daughter Pam has reverted to her childhood practice of staging accidents. The truth she waits to reveal will tear the family apart.


Chapter One

Breag Cuniff Is Sixty-five Years Old


He drove east into the sunrise, three paper sacks on the passenger seat. One was for Roseann. She would yell that he’d gone off without her, but quiet down at the familiar smell, take her sack to the front porch swing, and eat her Egg McMuffins, one by one. Breag, just now, slowing for a tentative buck and his doe, was grateful for her absence.

Hal had been there. Ryman never woke before ten or eleven.


Chapter Two

Roseann’s Morning


East windows showed red-rimmed eyes, and broken veins…

Panes. She saw the joke, the word sought, and what her mind furnished, and Roseann laughed, repeated the rhyming words. Her daughter, bothering with the curtains, trying to shade the breakfast table, left the room suddenly.

“I’ll do it myself.”

The panes weren’t broken; they were traced with cobwebs. Roseann’s right hand rested on the drawer handle, the drawer beside the sink where she kept potato mashers and cheese graters, the odd knives she had no use for, the huge serrated one for bread, the iron-tasting one for cutting roasts. What else? Carrot peelers, tea strainers. And postcards, too, a matchbook. Hasty things got rid of by shutting them away. Roseann pictured her drawer’s insides with intimacy. Biscuits needed making, and potato fries.

“Hash browns? Do you mean hash browns?” Pam said.

Roseann supposed she had spoken to Pam, but to her mind Pam had gone and not returned.

“Mom, Dad is getting us something from the restaurant. He doesn’t want you to cook.”


Chapter Nine

Pam’s Descent


She had a keen want, for him to believe her dead. Ry would come, stand beside Hal, look down on the blood, and the body…

Her body was her medium. She felt detachment in arranging limbs to best effect. Pam had made herself land hard on the wrist, moved her shocked arm to rest angled to her neck. The pain was good. She would be drugged and lie all day on the sofa, watch Good Morning America, The Price Is Right, Search for Tomorrow…

Sleep, let Mom fix her tomato soup and grilled cheese. Mom could do it, small things she had always done.

This wandering thought took its space of time, and Pam began to feel a chill, a paroxysm to betray life. Why did she hear Hal breathe, rustle in his clothes? When would he climb down to touch her…at some pulse point… When would he say something?

“Hal!” her brother said.

“Let her be,” Pam heard her husband answer. “She’s faking it.”

“No, she’s really hurt. Pam!”

“Are you awake, Pam?” Hal said, quiet-voiced.

The shoes she heard on the concrete steps were Ryman’s. She wouldn’t wake for her brother. She wanted Hal to say more, say all his contempt, say he was glad she was dead.



Critical Review

Mast Year, Derecho Press, 2022

323 pages


McKnight’s newest clocks in at a succinct three hundred-plus pages, a change that shows (perhaps) a consciousness of demanding too much, even from seasoned and professional readers. The author’s debut garnered long list attention from both the Booker Prize judges and those at the National Book Awards, ultimately to score a niche prize, the Turnstile, whose panel considers a mere four books per year, all of which must reference the sport of baseball. Rumor has it Mast Year is the first of a two-part Cuniff family saga; it may be that McKnight has acquiesced this time to Derecho’s suggestion of publishing in volumes, an enfant pétulant tamed by eight years’ reflection.

McKnight became an interesting literary figure, in 2014, with the publication of Tetanus, in which the Cuniff ancestors appeared as tangential characters. Readers will recall that Tetanus featured a serial inflictor of puncture wounds, who won acquittal by claiming religious fanaticism—while the novel’s ending strongly telegraphed her awareness of her amorality.

We may well ask whether the reclusive persona can be more than artifice, in the internet age. Certainly, McKnight was outed early, as then and still employed by Ferula College, a small private school in West Virginia, elite and Christian. His lectures on game theory are available to viewers of YouTube. In 2015, he became embroiled in a plagiarism lawsuit with an ex-partner, ultimately withdrawn, when the judge ruled that a shared notebook did not meet the burden of proof. McKnight continues to refuse interviews and promotional appearances.

That this behavior projects arrogance, merely spotlights the question of whether public persons in the 21st century can seem other than naïve or precious, if failing to exploit themselves as media figures. We are all media figures.

In Mast Year, McKnight once again shows his gift for making the unlikeably mundane, or the mundanely unlikeable, feel justified, in their processes of slow self-destruction. Even Hal, whose frank plan is to commit legal theft of his father-in-law’s property, skims near the surface of plausibility. Pam and her mother Roseann sink in tandem; they mirror each other, the daughter bearing a perfect impression of the mother’s life contours.

The bewildered Breag is the classic paternal anchor, the midwestern farmer whose goodness derives from his steadfastness, duty, routine. We want Breag to do well, yet we see how his apolitical nature makes his downfall inevitable. Those who care less and less about food as the product of agriculture, who believe the grain harvest can be reduced to buy or sell prompts in a commodities portfolio, win, because farmers like Breag have abstracted their own role to a liturgy. Breag, who can’t grow wholesome food, in non-exploitational quantities, by a stubborn adherence to his “values”, can’t nourish his family, either, in the emotional sense. The tenor of his feelings is a starchy too-muchness. His views are limited and dogmatic; he has no resources with which to confront change, much less changes of that heartless nature, that McKnight’s choice to set his events in the 1980s, presages.



Amazon Review


Pretty Good Book


The reason I gave it three stars, is because I had to read Tetanus for a class, and I thought it was okay. Only way, like way way, too long. Mast Year isn’t so bad, and it doesn’t have all the history, that I never actually read in Tetanus. I think Pam hurting herself could be triggering, so I think since there are people who have this problem, they should put a warning label on the cover.




Mast Year

Oil painting of two faces overlooking an abstract locationHarvest
















(2022, Stephanie Foster)




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