A little while back, I posted about the story, “Against Specificity” by Douglas Watson, from his collection “The Era of Not Quite.” Last week, I found myself with a little unanticipated free time and was able to get some ad hoc reading done. So I turned back to Watson’s slim volume of stories and read the rest of them. I was impressed with the quality of these stories and also with how well, despite how short several of them were, they conveyed many thought-provoking themes. The “star” attraction was easily the story from which the collection takes its title, “The Era of Not Quite.”
I’m a habitual underliner/highlighter when I read, and I can often go back to a previously read book and gauge how much I enjoyed a book by the “per capita” highlights. When reviewing this story for a potential quote or two to use for this post, I was surprised at how densely highlighted it was.
The Era of Not Quite relates the story of Hal Walker, a middle aged, shy and timid man who is an avid reader and as a result of recently reading novels by Samuel Beckett realizes he has “…been living like a Beckett character – someone waiting around for life to begin or end.” Hal’s undemanding job (he works at a phone company, and his job is to update the phone directory when someone dies) allows him plenty of time to read.
His reading opens his eyes to the many shortcomings of his life, and one day he arises deciding it is “a fine day on which to risk everything.” In Hal’s case, this means telling the town librarian, Eileen, about his love for her. She has always been nice to him, and in his limited scope of experience in the ways of the world, he reads more into this than is intended. He shows up at the library with a red rose for her. (In one of my many highlighted passages, he contemplates “What a shame that love required the murder of flowers. Or did it? It seemed to in books, but perhaps in life it didn’t. Perhaps love didn’t require anything outside itself.”)
Things don’t go as he hoped. If they did, we wouldn’t have this story, or I guess we may just have a different story. Eileen’s rejection (or at least what he interprets as such) throws him into further self-examination and recrimination. On his way out of the library a “a band of malevolent children ran past him, pointing at him and laughing.” He flushes and thinks, “do they already know what a fool he was? Does everyone know?”
The hapless Hal later turns his thoughts to a co-worker, Madge, who has also always been nice and, unlike most others, deigns to talk to him. He wonders what she thinks of him. He wonders “Did she read at all? If not, what on Earth did she do with her free time?” (Ha ha!) Pondering his situation, Hal thinks: “Now would be a good time to reread The Death of Ivan Ilych. He had always found the book comforting, especially when he was acutely lonely. When tangled up in small troubles, let Tolstoy lift your thoughts up to big troubles. That was the idea, anyway.”
He doesn’t own a copy of the book, though, since he usually borrows it from the library. With his wounds of rejection still fresh, he cannot face Eileen at his own library so hops on the “out of town bus” hoping to find a different library. The rest of the story deals with Hal’s “adventures” on the bus; he sees from the bus window a library in a neighboring town, but strangely doesn’t stop to “go into this library that was new to him and explore the countless worlds stored on its bookshelves.” He decides to head instead to the sea, which he has never seen but always dreamed about. I loved the ending:
“The sea didn’t care that Hal was coming to see it. The sea had its own problems, chief among them the terrific allure of the moon.
“Yes, the dry, barren moon exerted a great pull on the earthbound soup of life. Such is the way of things. It may even be that the sea originally sent life onto the land as a way of getting a little bit closer to the moon. Or maybe that is a fool hypothesis.
“What is certain is that the very fabric of the world yearns for that which it cannot reach.”
And so, in that last sentence, perhaps we learn why there are so many Hal Walkers in our world…
There were several other great stories in this collection (“The Man Who Was Cast into the Void” was another favorite) but none made as great an impression on me as this one. The book may be found on Amazon at and the kindle version is “only” $7.69. Or you could ask for it in your local library – that’s would Hal Walker would do. 🙂