Sunday, February 14, 2010

Review of Don Waters

I've been catching up on some friends' (and potential friends' blog posts) and I feel inspired to recommit to blogging.

Zach and I are feeling a mixture of discombobulation and piqued interest as we adjust to living in Canada during all of the excitement and uproar that is the winter Olympics. Tonight we went downtown to see a flick and accidentally walked into a laser light show -complete with ziplines.

I am ashamed to say that for the first time in memory, I haven't read a novel in one month. Instead, I've been savoring a collection of short stories by Don Waters called Desert Gothic. As the title suggests, these are physically gritty and mentally twisted tales that share American west desert settings. They're almost exclusively masculine, several of them gay. Many (if not all) of the characters are deeply, consciously isolated. They're laconic, but not stereotypical. There are chance encounters and sadly deficient relationships between generations and between cultures (mostly immigrant and citizen). "These were men with muscled cables dancing inside thick necks". Communication seems to be the ultimate goal. That and survival since a lot of the characters are terminally ill, have recently lost mothers or partners, or work in societal (and international) margins where violence, drugs, and illness seem common.

There are only two female characters with any lines at all; both of them are one-dimensional, one of them is stock. I consider my admiration for these stories to be signs of personal growth; for about two years I only read female writers.

Perhaps I'm drawn to these stories because their settings are such evocative portrayals of those desert cities and landscapes that are lodged in nostalgic memories. Waters has set out to study and capture the very atmosphere of the desert- that dehydrating, searing sensation of sun on skin- in prose that is both muscular and exact. I would read these stories just for the prose, but fortunately the characters are complex, unique, conflicted and likable.

My favorite three stories are "The Bulls at San Luis," "Little Sins," and "Mineral and Steel." "Bulls" is a border story that hasn't been told before. The desert setting moved me, partly because I have been on those southern Arizona drives and been to border towns like Nogales, but partly because this story retells the border-crossing myth. The end is in danger of being sentimental, but the impact is minimized by the masterful juxtaposition of narrative and back story.

"Little Sins" is such a clever story, although it wanders ever so slightly in the middle. It is the book's only depiction of marriage. The main character's passive aggressive behaviors are amusing and they function in the narrative as an innovative way to develop the contemporary emasculated male character.

"Mineral and Steel" seems pasted together at times, but the relationship between step-father and son is funny. The step-father's character is endearing: a massive man who (sometimes lovingly) makes door handles and only listens to Elton John. The prose carries an otherwise disjointed narrative to a satisfying end.

I have a new found respect for the Iowa Short Fiction Award and plan to read more of their winners.