Another Day in The Era of Not Quite

20130702-073959.jpg

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.”)

20130702-074226.jpg

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. 🙂

Advertisements

Douglas Watson’s short story “Against Specificity”

“…there comes a day when a certain truth starts to tug at your mind, gently but insistently. This truth is a little bit like a child who pulls at the sleeve of someone older and ostensibly wiser. It also resembles a change in tides,which swings all the boats moored in a harbor around to face away from where they’ve been facing – except that this truth does not turn you around completely. No, the direction in which you are pulled is entirely new to you.”

One great thing about reading a short story per week is that it’s pretty easy to find something different and new if you’re struggling to decide what to read. This was the case a couple weeks ago when I drew the two of diamonds for my 2013 Short Story Reading Project which I call “Deal Me In.” I read one story per week (52 total) throughout the year. For the most part, I come up with a list in advance, and assign each story to a playing card (52 weeks in a year, 52 cards in a standard deck, right?). Each suit has a “meaning” too, and this year diamonds was my suit for “authors I’d never read before.” Also, “deuces are wild” so the four deuces in the deck are for stories I didn’t include in my list prepared in advance. I pick which story to read each week randomly, using a deck of cards. On May 25th (I usually draw a new card on Saturday mornings, a prime time when I am free to get some quality reading in.) I drew the two of diamonds and went off looking for a story…

One resource I had found in May (National Short Story Month!) was the blog of The Missouri Review. They featured a story a day with different guest-post-ers writing about a story of their choosing. One post that intrigued me was on Douglas Watson’s story “Against Specificity,” and thus I was off to find and read it.

This was an unusual story, written in the (rarely used) second person. The reader is told that he is tired with “Thing A” and has begun to covet “Thing B” (these are the exact terms used in the story – I am not withholding specifics). Our neighbor, for instance, has “Thing B” and couldn’t be happier. Oh, if only we too could have “Thing B!” We are stuck with old (yet familiar and comfortable) Thing A. We go on a search for Thing B, which leads us to the “Thing Exchange” where trade-ins of one thing for another thing are possible. It is an odd place, with seemingly disinterested salespeople. Eventually, however, we complete a transaction and walk out of the Thing Exchange with Thing B. Life will be new and improved now, you’d better believe it!

But will we truly be happy with Thing B? That is the real question examined in this story and indeed likely in many of its readers’ lives as well.

The story is part of the collection “The Era of Not Quite.” I intend to read more from this volume in the coming months.

20130614-080608.jpg

What short stories have YOU read lately? Any you’d suggest that I put on my list for next year’s Deal Me In??

(below: author Douglas Watson, winner of the innaugural BOA Editions Short Fiction Prize)

20130614-080617.jpg