Ross Wilcox’s recent collection of stories, Golden Gate Jumper Survivors Society, presents some of the most delightfully strange fiction I’ve read to date. Wilcox seems to entertain our private What ifs? before rending these possibilities as sharp, suspenseful, and wildly amusing scenes where we are surprised to recognize ourselves in some of the most unlikely characters.
Like the temperamental president of the Golden Gate Jumper Survivors Society, who admits that he’s “the kind of person who’s either the star of the show or doesn’t participate,” as he competes against a new president of the club who has never “jumped” at all.
Or Olly, a young guy who dresses like a wizard and believes his life is a reality TV show as he pursues a relationship with “some cute girl” who “doesn’t actually deodorize,” realizing by the end that he might be willing to give up the TV show delusions “for her.”
Or a couple who decides to 3D print a child, then a whole world for that child, before things go awry and they start again, and again, realizing the hard way that the “low-maintenance cycle of toddler Adams and Evens” was “the best kind.”
The collection is humorous, yes. But light? No. Wilcox takes us on a joyful tour, but not without swerving into sincere, raw human places.
“Symptoms,” for example, is a story of a young father who is already struggling to sustain a job when he eats a pot brownie, then decides to tile the bathroom floor at the height of his high: “As I spread more grout, I think: Maybe this is my vocation. Who knew I just had to be high to find my life’s calling?” He slices his finger open, calls an ambulance to report a false heart attack, then reckons with the fallout: a bill astronomically higher than his savings to tile the bathroom himself, and a jarring disconnect with his family who comes to pick him up from the hospital. Wilcox renders this distance with beautiful precision through the father’s perspective: “When I was a boy, there was always a car, and it was always waiting, and I always got in it. I get in this one. There is a woman next to me and two girls in back. It’s a while before anyone says anything.”
“Ransom” is another poignant story that captures the ways adults ignore children. Wilcox, a master of first-liners, begins “Ransom” with this: “Jacob Carbunkle joined our seventh-grade class three weeks before the Milburn’s three-year-old-son was kidnapped.” We soon learn that Jacob himself announced to the whole class that his parents operate a “kidnapping business.” Most adults, in on the ruse to get ransom money from a rich family in town, continue to ignore the curious children as they instead “laugh off” the kidnapping and call it “completely inexplicable.”
“Year of Our Lawn” continues this critique of neighborly competition. An unspecified speaker who invokes the “we” of the community narrates this story as a lawn competition gets out of control, with taxidermy animal scenes taking over the town. Through the hyperbole we can see ourselves as the narrator names the desire for community and the risks of division, confessing, “Give how far we’d taken it, some of us laughed, amused that we had ever thought there would be more truth in the lawn scenes … Some even questioned whether there had ever been any truth in the lawn scenes at all.” Rather than learning from their mistakes, the speaker anticipates spring in the neighborhood, “when we would build again.”
Wilcox’s stories might be absurd, but he never veers into gotcha territory. Two stories in particular show an active resistance to the expected outcomes, demanding to be read as much deeper and everyday than the initially anticipated teased at the premise. In “Puddin’ Suitcase,” a narrator named Bobby, who has not come out as gay to his family and who craves to have his “own life,” reluctantly agrees to unearth the buried suitcase containing his aunt’s dead dog to relocate it to her new home. Though we fear something dreadful will happen with such a spooky mission, and though we see Bobby dig up the “treasure,” which “beckoned to be opened” with a “magnetic” force, he doesn’t, and nothing weird happens. Instead, Bobby drives away with his boyfriend, looking at his aunt through the rearview mirror as she “stood in the doorway, hunched, her hands clasped in front of her chest.” The final story in the collection, “Backward,” also lingers in seriousness, showing a teen narrator named Ali who witnesses a near drowning, then her mothers’ affair. Ali is left at the end committing to start saving for a car, to escape being “pulled under” herself.
Wilcox’s characters go to church and rob banks, get fired from jobs and never take off costume makeup, sustain families and break our hearts. They are “normal,” but also not. Like all of us. These stories vacillate between inducing a gut punch or a guttural laugh throughout, and their haunting possibilities linger long after the book ends.
Golden Gate Jumper Survivors Society, by Ross Wilcox. Brooklyn Heights, New York: 7.13 Books, August 2020. 150 pages. $18.99, paper.
Rachel Rueckert is a Utah-born writer, editor, photographer, and teacher living between Manhattan, Salt Lake City, and Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is an MFA candidate in nonfiction at Columbia University, where she also teaches Contemporary Essays.