Sunday, October 9, 2011

Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives (2010)

There is a line buried deep in Brad Watson's latest, luminous collection of short fiction, which signals the overall effect of the stories: A charged, nervous air, the atmospheric equivalent of the feeling you get when you knock your funny bone. It's uncomfortable to be thus jarred, but oddly reassuring to know we can occasionally be hurt without being too deeply scarred. Sadly, the same can’t quite be said for many of the characters limping through the brilliant Aliens in the Prime of their Lives.

Watson's stories, by his own admission in interviews, are this time around a little more personal than the ones in his 1996 collection, Last Days of the Dog-Men. This is evident in small but bold touches, details that carry the whiff of memory, the settled weight of emotion. A recurring location is the Coastal South, which at first seems a timeless reflection but is unmistakably Alabama and Mississippi during the 1960s and 70s. There is, however, no Mad Men-esque nostalgia at work here: more to the front is a kind of matter-of-fact melancholy, a wistful yearning for things not as they were, but how they might have been better, and thus how current times might be improved. The landscape is Flannery O'Connor territory for sure, but Watson isn't just squatting; yes, there are gypsies and hillbillies and even the odd zombie, but Watson moves beyond vibratory strangeness and into the inherent humanity to be found even amongst his most displaced and misinformed characters. He loves them, despite their cavernous fault lines, so that his readers can too.

The collection's opening story, "Vacuum," concerns three languid young boys who come to appreciate the situation of their broken home: if their father could leave, so too could their mother. Worse yet, she's actively threatening to do so, screaming over the roaring vacuum cleaner while they stubbornly stare at Westerns on television. Taking it upon themselves to find a medicine for her malaise, their best scheme involves calling on the lecherous old doctor down the street over for advice. Through their innocently misguided eyes, Watson gingerly evokes a journey into an understanding of the adult world, pickled as it is.

Most often, it is pickled in heartbreak. Several of the stories define the rifts and aftershocks of failed relationships. "Are You Mister Lonelee?" concerns one man's decision to rent his home following the departure of his wife -- whom he considers ipso-facto dead after a scooter accident renders her a "different person." Another, simply titled "Terrible Argument," is partially told through the eyes of a confused dog as it attempts to process the constant, violent fighting between its ill-matched owners.

And then there is the elegiac "Fallen Nellie." This quick and dirty snapshot of a Gulf Shores party girl showcases Watson's talent for finding the richest, purest metaphors in death and dying -- though the subtextual commentary is more overtly about the ravaging of the Gulf's shoreline (from walls of stacked condos or waves of spilled crude oil, matters not, take your pick). The story would not be out of place as a spiritual coda to his National Book award-nominated novel, The Heaven of Mercury, itself plump with such set pieces.

The collection is punctuated by the title novella, which takes place partially in a kind of alternate dream universe -- which is all the so-called "Good Old Days" are, anyway. A teenage pregnant couple moves into an attic room, married against the wishes of their parents, and are promptly visited by a man and woman claiming to be alien beings but are more likely escaped inmates from the nearby asylum, asking for custody of the unborn child. Immediately thereafter, the teen parents find their lives rolling blissfully forward; if it's not postcard-perfect, then it's near enough: fulfilling work, familial stability, a well-built house in the country. But in the offing is a twist that would make Rod Serling proud, as their small-town dreams begin dropping away like the layers of a rotten onion -- a twist both extraordinary and mundane, where real the magic lies.
What we pine for, Watson is telling us, is not some moment of physical, redeemable time. We pine for an ideal place, one parallel to our own, one collectively imagined at some distant point, in some brave moment where we recognized our own potential ... potential which never bloomed. Still, there it is, that hypnotizing possibility, unredeemed, unjustly out of reach, forever. What we wish hardest for sometimes isn't future possibility, but past improbability. And what activity is more human, and less alien, than the wish for a better world, whenever it may be?

Originally published in the Mobile Register, October 09 2011

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