Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives
by Brad Watson
W.W. Norton and Company, 268 pages, $23.95
In Brad Watson’s new story collection, Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives, most of the families crumble, some almost as quickly as they form. Watson grew up in Mississippi, has taught creative writing at the University of Wyoming since 2005, and sets most of his stories in the American South. Although family disintegration is a common subject for short fiction, Watson’s stories are full of surprises, often involving a note of the uncanny, such as a disturbing fortune teller who might be a gypsy, and a mysterious couple who could be escapees from a mental institution, or, as they claim in the absorbing title story, aliens from another planet.
In several stories, women have a craving to eat dirt—the practice called geophagy, once common in Mississippi among poor white and black women—that in Watson’s stories gives the women an otherworldly quality, as though they have one foot among the living and one among the dead.
In Watson’s stories, the children are often mentally sturdier than the adults who are supposed to take care of them. “Vacuum” is told from the perspectives of three young brothers whose father has run off with a maid, and whose mother is suffering from depression. When the boys’ mother doesn’t feel like cooking or cleaning, they go looking for help, first from the family’s former maid and caretaker, then from a dissolute, retired doctor who lives nearby. In “Visitation,” which originally appeared in The New Yorker, a “despair”-suffering dad named Loomis is separated from his wife and son, who have moved to Southern California (from where isn’t stated). Every three weeks, Loomis flies out to visit his son, staying with him in a dreary hotel, “a bleak place in which to do one’s part in raising a child.” More often than not, it’s the boy that plays the role of shoring up his dad’s spirits. As a character in “Water Dog God,” a disturbing story of incest and mental illness, says, “Well, the world ain’t no place for a child these days.”
Even the dogs can be psychologically more healthful than their caretakers in Watson’s stories, which is especially true in the story “Terrible Argument,” about a couple who “drank heavily and often had terrible arguments late in the evening.” One fight escalates until the man shoots himself in his foot, and at the end of the story the perspective switches quite convincingly to that of the couple’s poor, beleaguered dog, adopted by one family after another that presents him with “a new set of baffling circumstances.”
In a few cases, Watson’s characters never even get the chance to try to form a family or adopt a dog. In the intense “Fallen Nellie,” Watson imagines the quick, hard life of a woman whose body is discovered outside in a beach town, wearing only a swimsuit. The omniscient voice of the narrator is at once distant from Nellie and intimately familiar with her. “She was one of those people anywhere between thirty-two and fifty,” a description of Nellie begins, but then it zeroes in on her, pinning her as “a girl who would act on a dare,” abandoned by her parents and raised by a grandmother who “didn’t turn on her or give up when she started acting just like her mama had, going wild with boys, with booze, with pills, with weed, and generally trashy acting out.”
Nellie ends up a public beach “Hangout whore” who “grasped at others to decrease her speed, Biloxi gamblers, itinerant roofers, lonely old snowbirds, and finally mostly regular local trash, reaching for them as she sped past, and at this speed they had no faces, no names.” “Fallen Nellie” reads like the expanded biography of a murder victim you’d read about in a small article in the local paper, and it evokes great sympathy.
Despite the overwhelming atmosphere of despair, there are a few moments of humor in Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives. Something terrible has happened to the narrator of “The Misses Moses,” but we never find out what. He goes to interview for a room in a house owned by two old maiden sisters who prepare him homemade pimento cheese, their home decorated with “old, expensive rugs and drapes in some late stage of decrepitude, their worn, exhausted fibers a molecular stage above disintegration.” In “Are You Mr. Lonelee?” a widower rents out his house after his wife dies, unable to confront with her belongings and memory. But then he gets drunk one night and forgets that he has a renter, an armed, obese woman who has a comic confrontation with him when he intrudes.
Watson’s stories are sad ones, for the most part, so why would anyone want to read a book of sad stories? In this case, for the insights they offer, the beauty of their prose, and the unexpected places they take the reader along the way.
Brad Watson will discuss Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives at the Tattered Cover (Colfax) on Monday, April 19 at 7:30 p.m.