Thursday, March 4, 2010
Sometimes it seems that I already know people I've never yet met. The profoundly talented Brad Watson is one of those. I first heard of him through my W.W. Norton editor, Alane Mason, who recounted discovering Watson's work in a literary magazine. He was a fresh talent, book worthy. She got in touch. Their first publication, Last days of the Dog-Men was uncanny and brave. It won the Sue Kauffman Award for First Fiction.
I was working with Alane then on a sequence of books, and so, from time to time, I would hear wind of a new Brad Watson book—this one a novel, The Heaven of Mercury, set in the early 20th century south. It was gothic, Faulknerian, adjective-rich, a thing utterly apart from the short stories. It was named a National Book Award finalist.
A few years ago, my friend Alyson Hagy, while having dinner at my house, spoke of her hope that a certain Brad Watson would join the creative writing staff at the University of Wyoming. After he did, I would sometimes hear stories of long hikes or fishing trips. A few weeks ago, Alyson mentioned that she'd seen an early copy of Watson's new collection of stories, Aliens in the Prime of their Lives. "It's gorgeous," she said.
Yesterday and this morning, I've been reading through. This isn't Dog-men. This absolutely isn't Mercury. This new collection of stories is so utterly new and once again bold; it is internally consistent. It's as if Watson, having expended so much energy on the lyrical and braided in Mercury, decided to see what might be done with a minimum of back story and a scarcity of adjectives.
A whole heck of a lot, is the answer. These stories achieve power, momentum, and absolute artistry through the accretion of odd facts, strange circumstances, and the wholly exposed wires of human circuitry, which are not, as it turns out, always so pretty. But pretty wouldn't be half as compelling as these stories are.
"Vacuum," my personal favorite, is the story of three boys who hear their overworked and unhappy mother threaten to walk away and not come back. With the boys' father already missing, the brothers set out to save the mother. Rarely have so many good intentions gone so terribly wrong; rarely does innocence yield such havoc. Watson lays it all out, one crooked turn after another, in language that is spare and terrifying. You finish reading "Vacuum" and you understand that you are going to have to steel yourself for whatever comes next. It will be undecorated and uncompromising. It won't be like any other story you've read.
Reading the collection, I thought again of just how lucky the creative writing students of the University of Wyoming are to have the equally talented Alyson Hagy working alongside Brad Watson, sharing space this semester with Edward Jones, among others. (Last semester they even had Kate Northrop, the poet, with whom, through Alyson, I've also become friends.) I never went to school to learn how to write prose, but if I were younger, just setting out, I'd want to know what these writers would teach me.