The title of I Pray Hardest When I’m Being Shot At was provided by retired three-war veteran Robert Stuart, who was intended to be the subject of the book. However, the book’s author is Stuart’s grandson, Kyle Garret...and along the way, the book became at least as much about him, and how he went about writing a book about his grandfather, as it ever was about Stuart.
The end result is a mixture of biography, memoir, history, and dissection of the writing process, and is not entirely satisfying in any of those aspects. Garret’s grandfather died when he was still in the early stages of writing, which caused him to lose opportunities for research via correspondence and personal interview with his subject; as a result, we don’t really get much insight into Stuart beyond the basic biographical details. Garret is so acutely aware of this that it overshadows his original intent to highlight his grandfather’s story as part of the “Greatest Generation.” In the end, this is primarily a book about someone writing a book...and I didn’t feel that I got much insight into that, either.
There were moments of Pray that absorbed me, and elements that could have been been constructed into a compelling story, but the overall narrative is choppy. I think that a major cause of that choppiness is the book’s pervasive self-consciousness. As a reader, I don’t really need to be told, over and over, about the writer’s intentions and challenges in writing the book I have in my hands. Here, the writing of the story becomes a story of its own, and sometimes overwhelms the original story itself.
I Pray Hardest When I’m Being Shot At would not have come to my attention at all without the Indie Lit Awards. It’s a great example of the sort of book these awards should recognize--a personal passion project of its author, published by a small press, championed by readers (it received more short-list nominations than several more prominent titles). However, the awards-show cliché “It’s an honor just to be nominated” applies here. It’s a challenge to produce a compelling biography of someone who isn’t already well-known, and not everyone can rise to it like Laura Hillenbrand or Rebecca Skloot--Kyle Garret’s not there yet. Perhaps he’ll revisit his grandfather’s story one day and really make it about his grandfather; if so, he’s got a very good first draft already.