It’s always thrilling—and reassuring—to discover a talented new writer in his very first book-length effort. Such is the case with John Carr Walker and his recently released short story collection, the aptly if ironically named Repairable Men. Not only is this one of the shrewdest and darkest story collections I’ve read in years, but it marks Walker—a young talent out of Oregon—as a writer from whom much can be expected.
Most of the stories in Repairable Men have previously appeared in literary journals, yet when gathered together they form a unifying and even devastating whole. The sad thing about the “repairable” tag is that nearly all of the protagonists in Walker’s stories are broken, most too badly to be repaired at all. Each in their own way is haunted by death—sometimes literal, usually spiritual or metaphorical. They struggle to endure or even defeat their desperate straits, but the reader can only watch as the solutions won’t come, because the characters are too far gone. Or the “solutions” only make matters worse. Take the disturbing story “Pups,” in which a woman who hates for her husband (with some reason, I should add) trains the new wolf pups he has brought home to regard him as the enemy; she hopes, of course, that someday they will attack him and finish him off. Or the first story in the collection, “Ain’t It Pretty,” in which the protagonist Drew, faced with a failing raisin farm, a marriage that has disintegrated (his wife has recently left him, taking their young son), and the care of his dead mother’s annoying dog, convinces his younger brother Reg to visit. Drew hopes that when Reg realizes all the issues in his life, Reg will stay on and act as the deus ex machina to relieve Drew’s many existential and financial dilemmas. The most immediate and gruesome outcome Drew hopes for is that Reg will execute the dog. As with most best laid plans, however, Drew’s don’t work out in any way he might have hoped for. While in fact his brother does take care of the dog, the very asking of it has irreparably damaged their already strained relationship.
Then there’s “Retreat” in which a university professor who has lost his four-year-old son to an accident hopes that a work-related retreat will serve as the kind of trivial, careless getaway that might help him and his wife heal. What happens on the retreat, however, is not what he or anyone could have expected—and it certainly does not bring about healing. Too, there’s “Turning Over,” a brief yet powerful picture of a marriage at its emotional if not technical end. The protagonist Barger feels no love for his wife Sandy and has not for several years. When Sandy lunges for Barger at the end of the story, accompanied by a cry of appreciation, the reader knows that her actions are both hopeless and delusional, a fact that Walker captures in a single devastating sentence: “She lifted herself and in the dark pressed her mouth to his, as if passion, or resuscitation, was what the situation required.” Resuscitation, yes; except that the patient is, and always has been, emotionally dead.
Walker’s sparse, measured style is perfectly suited for the dark subject matter he takes on. I would not call his prose minimalistic, as this ignores all the evident emotional and psychological turmoil he is able to build into the surface of his stories; but certainly Walker’s style is lean, even muscular, fitting for a contemporary writer from the west. Not a word is wasted, and it’s safe to say that as much happens in the spaces between sentences as in the sentences themselves. And yet, even so, the sentences themselves are delicious, often evocative, and sometimes provocative. They will not disappoint.
For all the affecting gloom that inhabits these stories, two of the most memorable are embedded with strands of forgiveness and possibility. For instance, there is “A Sword From My Country,” in which the boss of a small company—at first glance an arrogant and leering presence—turns out to be the vehicle for the young narrator’s new appreciation of her Vietnamese heritage. The girl cannot really be sure of what happened during her brief, private encounter with this man, but she knows that the encounter cannot be dismissed as a mere come-on. Indeed it seems to have entirely changed, for the better, her idea of who she is. Then there is my favorite in the collection: “The Atlas Show.” In this story a college baseball player who has been kicked off his team tries to hide the fact from his father, a former athlete who seems to have inflated ideas about his son’s potential. But as it turns out, the father understands a lot more than he lets on about his son’s situation; and with an unexpected delicacy, to say nothing of strategic subtlety, he is able to move both he and his son past the fact of loss and into a better future, one which the son actually prefers to the baseball diamond. Quite an exquisite “show” indeed.
“Thought we were goners,” the son jokes at the end of that story. In truth, not only this young man but almost all of Walker’s characters are goners. But even the hardscrabble social terrain of Walker’s west can provide a few occasions of redemption, a few rays of light to pierce the powerful, unforgettable darkness of these stories. It will be worthwhile to keep an eye on what Walker does next. One can only hope—after such a promising fictional start—for a novel from him. Having already refined his style to a master’s point, will Walker continue to burrow further into emotional blackness, or will he pick up a story that has some light to share? Either way, I suspect, it can’t help but be a winner.
Repairable Men, by John Carr Walker. Buffalo, New York: sunnyoutside. 120 pages. $13.00, paper.
John Vanderslice hails from southern Maryland, specifically the eccentric community of Moyaone. He has an MFA in Poetry Writing from George Mason University and a PhD in English from the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. He lives in Conway, Arkansas, where he is Associate Professor at the University of Central Arkansas, teaching fiction writing, poetry writing, and nonfiction writing both to undergraduates and to graduate students in the Arkansas Writers MFA Workshop. He also serves as an associate editor of Toad Suck Review magazine.