In Ryan Werner’s slim, beautiful collection, If There’s Any Truth in a Northbound Train, twins vie for birthright order, a hollow-boned girl traces her ancestry back to birds, and at the end of the world, a man just wants to eat a caramel apple. These stories are brief but never elliptical; the past is ever present, lives are fully lived before the characters appear on the page, and Werner’s prose is precise and muscular. There are no wasted words here, and no attempts at authorial trickery. What more can—or needs to—be said about “two girls, one with purple hair and the other with a laugh like formaldehyde” or how a crowd will “come together and disperse like old milk”?
If some similarities link the eight stories—they are all told in the first-person, mostly by young men suffering under the weight of their Midwestern unhappiness—the specificity of Werner’s details gives each story the sense of a full world. A meat processing plant’s discards are used for a haunted house’s decorations; a worker on his last day in a Wisconsin grocery finds himself locked in a bathroom with a young woman; a man’s former fiancé wins the lottery and attempts to fill her pool with New Coke.
The collection’s main preoccupation is the elusiveness of answers to the Big Questions. More bluntly, the stories eschew the epiphanic moment that so often appears in short fiction. In “Origin Story,” the narrator—whose brother’s disappearance has fractured his family’s relationships—wonders, “So the good guy is the one whose story gets told and the bad guy is the one whose story gets lost?” By the story’s end, there is no clear answer; one senses that there is no point. Werner’s characters do not come to realizations as much as step beside their own misguided views, not toward a larger truth, but closer to the greater mystery that still lies ahead.
Werner is particularly skilled as an excavator of his characters, drawing forth into precise images and lines the essential truths and doubts of their experiences. Take, for example, the title story, in which a description of the physical body morphs into an illumination of a character’s central dilemma. “Both of our noses looked like a blown-apart tulip,” the narrator says of himself and his twin brother, “the same hot blood on our knuckles, the same problem of not knowing who the oldest is, not knowing which of us should sign away their years and worship the other.”
In the final story, “There Is No Joy Between The Last Thing and The Next Thing”, the collection’s longest and best, Werner is at his most generous. Eugene, the narrator’s best friend, has has convinced the narrator to take small doses of poison, “the way some rats have built up an immunity … us doing the same thing is like teaching our skin to deflect knives, which is something people say when they’re scared, when they’re trying not to be scared.”
London, Eugene’s girlfriend, is pregnant with triplets; by the story’s end, the babies arrive. Here, Werner is able to articulate the terror and immediate vulnerability that comes over the new father. Eugene has stopped taking poison; he is awkward with the new babies. But in his old age, the narrator thinks, Eugene will give in to his daughters when they need “a dollar for a distraction, a car to leave him, a house to exclude him, nothing left for him to do but remove most of the severity from everything, put holes in his gut and then try to fill them up.” As Werner does again and again in the collection, the story swells with a transcendent, semi-hopefulness: here is the thing the character never knew he cared about, in front of him all along.
Ultimately, this is what I loved about If There’s Any Truth in a Northbound Train: that it reads like a love song to life as it is, “half a joke, and it doesn’t matter which half because neither one is funny.”
If There’s Any Truth in a Northbound Train, by Ryan Werner. Passenger Side Books. 28 pages. $5.00, paper.
Brett Beach recently graduated from Ohio State’s MFA program. His stories appear in Slice, Hobart, The Normal School, and elsewhere. He is at work on a novel.