by Lisa Peet
I remember learning how to read fiction when I was 14 or 15, that sponge age when everything is new and amazing. Over a six-month period, I picked up a handful of novels that turned me from an indiscriminate young reader to a more thoughtful one with a critical eye for style, plot, dialogue. I remember this as a light-bulb moment, though I’m sure it was more of a slow dawning (nostalgia for myself as a blooming lover of good stories has probably tweaked events to resemble good stories themselves). Either way, it was a fine thing to encounter the right fiction at the right time, when I was just beginning to learn about the world and my eyes were wide open.
But the concept of good literary timing means there are books that can be read too early. Some are just too sophisticated for younger tastes. More often, it’s about having seen too little of the world to develop the kind of compassion that comes with acquired humility. Even young readers with the most hardscrabble lives still only know what they’ve seen. Fiction does open up alternate universes; but it’s a gradual process, and needs to work in tandem with real life. It’s why you want to read Jack Kerouac in high school, not Bukowski. Some literature will end up as shots over the bow—not exactly incomprehensible, but not finding its mark, either—and some will just strike the reader as grotesque.
April Wilder’s debut short story collection, This is Not an Accident, is this kind of work: stories for grownups. It’s not difficult writing—the language is straightforward, snappy, often very funny—nor is the subject matter particularly adult in nature. But to appreciate her characters, and the bewildering situations in which they often find themselves, a reader needs to have been knocked around a bit by the universe. Wilder’s sympathy for her characters is evident, but it’s also no match for their dysfunction. It would be too easy to label them losers.
But they’re not losers: they are tentatively or aggressively blundering; self-sabotaging or trying to save themselves at the expense of others; lonely, lost, manic, misguided, or just plain walking the wrong path. Wilder offers us, for example, the title story’s Kat, who has landed in driving school after racking up two tickets during one frantic drive to meet a blind date 200 miles away. After hearing a fellow offender’s story of running a woman off the road without ever seeing her coming (“The first and last he saw of her was in his rearview mirror, when he glanced up and saw the blue car tipping off the road ‘like off the side of a ship.’”), Kat convinces herself that on her distraught trip home from Iowa to Wisconsin—her date never showed—she could have killed someone, and she finds herself driving the same stretch obsessively looking for signs of that accident, and then of the accident she might have caused while looking for the first one. Her sister Angel—who works as a mermaid in a giant tank in a theme bar—is her main ally, but even she takes Kat to task: “Listen, if you don’t want doofuses standing you up, then you have to be a person doofuses wouldn’t stand up. And that’s not me talking, that’s science.”
There’s also Laney, in “It’s a Long Dang Life,” who reunites with the love of her life—a pain-in-the-ass all-day drinker who is volatile and rowdily inappropriate with Laney’s grandchildren—much to their mixed terror and delight, and the horror of her own straightlaced children. But she has found love late in life, and she knows it comes with a chaotic set of compromises. Wilder manages to convey ambivalence and resolution together in one train of thought, without ever giving the reader a chance to feel superior:
But he will drink too much again and he will play too hard, he will pick them up, the grands, hold them screaming in midair, and some day he’ll play until he’s not playing anymore. And Laney won’t stop him. She never will. If he asked her, if it’s what he needed to make it through the night, she would deliver them to him in her own arms.
My favorite might be the nameless 30ish narrator of “We Were Champions,” working through some thoughts about her high school softball coach, who has just shot himself after an arrest for sexual misconduct—the most notable feature of his coaching technique even 15 years ago, when he’d had sex with her, her best friend, and probably most of the team. This is not a tale of triumph over victimhood—much to the disgust of her boyfriend, Mack, who might prefer it that way—but something more complicated having to do with batting averages, learning how to shoot guns, and amorphous teenage appetites:
I didn’t intend to fire, but I liked Bob there behind me arranging my arm like a mannequin’s. It was that same sensual feeling you get at the salon when they wash your hair and really dig in, and you don’t care if your hair’s clean or falling out, you’re thinking, Jesus, hair lady, just keep going.
Mack subsumes his conflicted feelings by throwing a drunken neighborhood pig roast. Or more accurately, an attempted pig roast—because if you’ve ever stopped to consider how, exactly, one gets a full-sized pig on a spit in an improvised streetside barbecue pit, it’s not quite as simple as it first sounds.
And in fact nothing in This Is Not an Accident is as simple as it first sounds. Wilder’s characters lead complicated, difficult lives—there are layers and layers to her people, of self-deception and brutal honestly, deceit and loyalty, bad decisions. And they run up against all the kinds of difficult you can think of.
Admit it: there was a time in your life when you would have said, “Who are these people?” and turned away. The book’s one-star reviews on Goodreads, for instance, mostly revolve around readers’ inability to relate to the characters—including one reviewer who volunteers that she loved Harry Potter because he felt like like an older brother to her.
Because Wilder’s people are people you know, people you’ve drunk with, people you’ve been and might be again. And once you accept that fact, and the idea that, more often than not, life is beyond your control, you’re ready to love a book like This Is Not an Accident. Or as sad Jack, waiting at a restaurant for his soon-to-be-ex-wife in “The Butcher Shop,” puts it:
He was tired of trying to make things bearable, while at the same time suspecting they weren’t unbearable at all, only unsafe and unknown.
While her work is saturated with dark humor and a definite noir sensibility, Wilder considers herself, above all, an absurdist. She has a sharp eye for that place where logic meets unreason, especially in the American landscape. In an interview for Authorlink, she says,
Maybe there is an American pain. I consider myself, for better or worse, to be extremely American. I picture myself as the world-traveler type, but after a week I always want to come back home and hear American jokes. That’s kind of a theme of the book.
Wilder focused on narratives of the absurd in her graduate studies: she has a PhD in literature/creative writing from the University of Utah and an MFA in fiction from the University of Montana. While she hadn’t always thought of herself as a writer, she comes from “a family of story-tellers, goofs, [and] wits”:
Growing up I read whatever my mother read. She was a sort of Madame Bovary-type with a large library of classics and an uncanny memory for details. She would describe scenes in wild emotional gesturing detail (Evelyn Waugh and Nabokov were her favorites), sometimes bringing tears to her own eyes. When I would read the books myself later, the scenes were rarely as elaborate as her retellings—sometimes I would be expecting a chapter and instead there would be two lines. So what inspired me most to become a writer, what made it inevitable, almost, was living with a maniacal reader.
But first she earned a BS in math and actuarial science from UCLA, which isn’t as incongruous as it first sounds. There are mathematicians in her tales, and troubled young men who calm themselves by copying out physics textbooks word for word. And there is a certain precision to the stories’ construction as well. “Higher level prose has a mathematical element to it,” Wilder offers. “Elegant writing is puzzle work. A successful piece of art will be both left-brained and right-brained.”
This appreciation of multiplicity serves her writing well. Wilder’s prose is careful, packing a one-two punch that can be either hilarious or devastating, often both. That precision is necessary in doing justice to all that very human ambiguity. Even labeling her characters’ lives “messy” is doing them a disservice. It’s more a matter of bleed, the way watercolors or markers will: unanticipated, usually unappreciated at first, but often, ultimately, beautiful.
This past February, Wilder wrote an essay for O Magazine about her own experiences with life’s refusal to respect the lines we draw. The title—“Strings Attached: What Happens When You Get Pregnant With Your Ex-Husband?”—cuts to the chase. Four years after separating, she and her ex found themselves sharing quarters at her sister’s wedding, and one thing led to another. As she succinctly puts it, “The act itself can be blamed on the usual antecedents: a wedding, an open wine cellar, a tent.” Neither felt particularly guilty, and when Wilder started feeling woozy a few weeks later, she assumed she’d hit menopause. Instead, her doctor informed her that it was “the opposite of menopause”:
I called a friend and made her chain-smoke in my backyard while I sat downwind and cried, ankle-deep in the sun-bright leaves of a Utah fall. I was 41, a hermit-writer who slept ten to 12 hours a night, a tomboy who had held perhaps two babies, ever, regarding them as benign, ignorable life-forms on the order of cats. We talked about my options, sort of, but I understood that if this late in the game a baby was going to fall out of the sky into my unlikely lap, then I needed to do as I was told, so to speak, and have it.
O, of course, is Oprah’s Magazine, so you don’t expect a story there to have the same dark edges as Wilder’s tales (one of the great joys of fiction is the guilt-free ability to narrow your eyes and stand by, fascinated, while characters crash and burn, but it’s a bit less fun when they’re real people). You’re rooting for her to come out of this okay. So it’s a pleasure that the essay ends on a hopeful note, with her ex as an involved and loving father and the three of them reinventing this family business as they go along.
Wilder finished up the collection that would become This is Not an Accident a few weeks before her daughter was born. In an interview with Corduroy Books, she describes getting “the offer from Viking sitting in a hospital bed; a baby in one arm and a book deal in the other”—proving that messy can be a good thing, too. These days she’s working on a novel; the pace is better suited to life with a small child than short stories, she says—more meditative than dependent on tight logic, more workable in the framework of constant interruptions and less sleep. Putting aside a manuscript she’d been working on earlier, she has begun a new story, more in line with her life now, about “babies, mistaken identity, a stolen car (note: the baby is not in the stolen car), eternal love.” Its tentative title is I Think About You All The Time, Starting Tomorrow.
This Is Not an Accident ends with “You’re That Guy,” a longer-form story that packs a lot in its emotional luggage. Eckhart—a youngish fellow who is rescued from a state of bad drift after the death of his father and brought to Salt Lake City by his childhood friend Russ—hangs out on the periphery of a group of poets, develops a crush on Russ’s girlfriend, and keeps running into Billy, a strange local character who walks around with a carefully dressed doll strapped to his chest in a carrier. On Halloween Eckhart decides it would be funny to dress up as Billy, complete with a doll of his own, and thus gets to hear everyone’s theories and urban legends about how a person might end up like that—a house fire, a child killed, a nervous breakdown and a psychiatrist’s advice to care for a surrogate.
Other stuff happens: much pot is smoked, Eckhart has a run-in with the police, he confesses his crush. But what we’re really getting a glimpse of, I think, is one of Wilder’s readers in the making, evolving from “who are these people?” to “we are these people.”
He said he didn’t see why there had to be a story. He said, “No one seems to want to believe there’s just a guy who’s so lonely he carries a doll around—apparently everyone feels better thinking this shitty thing happened that explains it.” He rolled his head back. “The fire, the shrink, the baby—it’s a Ron Howard film. One thing people don’t seem to be able to take is public loneliness. Anything but that.”
These stories are a memento mori for difficult lives: As I am, so could you be, far more easily than you can imagine. Clever, and darkly funny, This Is Not an Accident is also mournfully intelligent about the human condition. As for Wilder, she surely comes by this knowledge honestly—it must be in her blood. In her essay for O, she describes her father’s reaction to her pregnancy:
“A mess?” he said. “Life by design is a mess. The minute you’re born, you’re dying.” I heard him puffing on a cigar. “I don’t pretend to know what drives you in this world, but you don’t apologize to nobody for nothing.”
Lisa Peet is a writer, editor, artist, recent recipient of a Masters in Library & Information Science, proprietor of the literary blog Like Fire, and a card-carrying bloomer herself.
Lisa Peet’s previous features: Hesh Kestin: Deadlines, Word Counts, and Magnificent Lies, Jules et Jim et Henri-Pierre et François, Jane Gardam’s Characters: Organically Grown, Experience Required: The Middle of the Road, Thomas Van Essen: The Ekphrasis of Ecstasy, Experience Required: Back to School, Jon Clinch: Telling Stories on His Own Terms, Kate Chopin’s Artistic Awakenings, Deborah Eisenberg: Small-World Stories, The Bitten Word: Dracula for Everyone, Isak Dinesen: Her Own Heroine, Walker Percy: The Original Moviegoer.