Brad Watson, author of Last Days of the Dog-Men has now released Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives, which contains the title piece, a novella of 72 pages, and 11 other stories.
Audio ?2010 Alabama Public Radio
Brad Watson is neither a fast writer nor a prolific writer. He is, however, a genuinely serious writer who polishes each piece of fiction until it is as fine as he can get it. The results have been remarkable. His first book of stories, Last Days of the Dog-Men (1996), won the Sue Kaufman Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters for a first volume of fiction. His second book, the novel The Heaven of Mercury(2002), was runner-up for the National Book Award, and now Watson has released Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives, which contains the title piece, a novella of 72 pages, and 11 other stories.
Sometimes there are influences, of the best pedigree, discernable in Watson's fiction. In Aliens, we see the influence of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, perhaps. A young couple, in what must be Meridian, Mississippi, elope to Livingston, Alabama, and marry in the summer before their high school senior year. She is pregnant, of course, but they are in love. They move into a small attic apartment, no air conditioning, and begin their lives together. Both sets of parents are horrified, of course. The odds against their success are severe, but it could happen. In the middle of the night their apartment is visited by a strange couple, wearing identical white cotton pajamas. "We're what you might call aliens," the woman says. "From a planet in another solar system only about five million light-years from here," the man adds. This may be so, or they may be from the nearby mental hospital. In either case, the young couple goes into a coma, or is abducted in some fashion, and each gets to live out the dream of his or her life. In HIS alternate biography, their marriage thrives, they build a house, raise their little boy and live happily. In HER alternate reality there is a mansion, a yacht and a handsome wealthy Greek husband. Uh-oh.
This novella is totally convincing, whether the aliens are real or not. The future course of every life is at least partly determined by every choice we make, at every fork in the road we come to, every minute of the day. Each decision closes out some possibilities and opens up others. And every life contains moments so unreal as to seem alien.
The story "Visitation" is very different. Published originally in The New Yorker, this is the all too familiar, painful tale of a divorced father visiting his son in a distant state. They stay in a seedy motel. They eat pizza. He drinks too much bourbon. He is trying desperately to stay connected to his son, but not sure it can be done. The story ends, "He couldn't imagine what would come next."
This is typical of Watson's stories. Readers would look in vain for a conventional ending. The plot lines are not tied up neatly because, it is clear, Watson does not believe that the various chapters of our lives tie up neatly.
In "Terrible Argument" the married couple fights so violently the husband finally shoots himself in the foot, just to make it stop. Even the dog is upset, and yes, as with Last Days of the Dog-Men, there are lots of dogs in these stories. Towards the end of the story, Watson gives us the dog's thoughts. She could of course, run off. "But another couple, another family, would only present a new set of baffling circumstances. Of this she had no doubt. In spite of their bad behavior, this couple had loved her and cared for her and served her well." But the dog is uncertain, and frightened. "For the first time in a long time, since she was very young and homeless and hungry, she raised her muzzle into the air and let out a long, mournful howl." The reader sympathizes absolutely.
In the story "Carl's Outside" the quarreling couple's young son, Carl, may be still in the neighborhood, hiding, or maybe not.
Watson's stories are not jolly or optimistic, especially about marriage and the hope of happiness. The protagonist of Aliens, speaking I think for many, says, "I was never a very happy or contented person." Watson's persons rarely are. These haunting, brilliant stories are conceived in loss and conclude in ambiguity.
This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio on April 5, 2010. Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m.