Precise, surprising . . . gorgeously turned sentences.
There's a rootless, metaphysically barren quality to Watson's characters, but their anguish cannot be called ennui. It's something less desperate, less urgent, and thereby more tragic, because it is so recognizably common. These people may be able to count their lossesa relationship doomed to perpetual argument; a jilted husband who can confide only in a gossipy old neighbor; sons who have made themselves strange and remote toward their parentsbut they rarely wrestle with them, and they encounter the truth of their impoverished lives only in fleeting, painful moments. Yet we readers, conscious of all this, feel their pain more acutely, knowing these characters have made themselves more alone, aliens even to themselves, because they are incapable of honestly appraising their failures.
The New York Times
Family members who act like strangers, and characters who eat dirt, undergo strange transformations, and find themselves drawn mysteriously to bodies of water form the heart of Watson's accomplished collection, but the latest from the author of The Heaven of Mercury is much more than the sum of its strange moments. In “Vacuum,” three boys who are afraid their mother will leave them begin playing with razor blades and jumping off the carport roof. In “Carl's Outside,” neglectful parents belatedly realize their son has disappeared. In one of the most eerie pieces, “Water Dog Good,” a man takes in his ethereal 16-year-old niece, who has been sexually assaulted by her father and brothers. In the title story, a teenager and his pregnant girlfriend's lives unspool after an encounter with a mysterious couple who may or may not be aliens. Watson is a master at hairpin plot turns, and his characters come alive on the page with minimal backstory; readers get deep into their heads and hearts, even when the weirdness surrounding them feels like something out of a David Lynch movie. (Mar.)
National Book Award nominee Watson (The Heaven of Mercury), whose Last Days of the Dog Men won a Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction, returns with 12 new stories. Dysfunctional parents, extraterrestrials, and other characters relating badly—all are paralyzed by discord and lack of connection. "Vacuum" is a poignant story of three young brothers who enlist the help of the town doctor to prescribe medicine for their always-angry mother. In "Are You Mr. Lonelee?" Conroy pretends that his wife has died because he can't accept her having run off to a commune of artists and bikers. In the title novella, a young couple elopes because of an unplanned pregnancy, and soon after a bizarre man and woman pay them a visit, saying that they are from another solar system. Watson's unforgettable characters are very real, despite their frightening predicaments, but seem to lack the wisdom and spiritual insight to change their lives. VERDICT Many readers will make solid comparisons to the fiction of Richard Russo and John Updike. Essential reading and highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 11/1/09.]—Donna Bettencourt, Mesa Cty. P.L., Grand Junction, CO
Domestic dramas, failed marriages, gunshots in the night and a dash of alien intrigue punctuate a collection of gothic tales. Returning to the pungent stories that represent his best work, National Book Award finalist Watson (The Heaven of Mercury, 2002, etc.) reaches new creative heights with some pieces and falls prey to literary navel-gazing in others. Fortunately, great works outnumber baffling ones in this mostly splendid collection. The first story, "Vacuum," paints childhood not as we remember it but in its mad flush of abandon, as three boys get into trouble when their overworked mother reaches the end of her rope. Some entries are little more than snapshots, among them "The Misses Moses," which profiles two spinster sisters, or "Terrible Argument," which ends in self-inflicted gunfire. But when Watson is on his game, even the slightest tale carries narrative weight. That's the case with one of the slimmest, "Fallen Nellie." A beach girl sees her life pass before her eyes in seven pages of Watson's sand-dry prose: "In this manner she tumbled through time all the way to the very end of it. Doesn't matter which one did it to her, which gaptooth left her here in the palmettos beside the trail in the wildlife preserve along the beautiful white dunes of Bon Secour Beach. It was done." There are some missteps. "Water Dog God" feels like a leftover from an earlier collection, and "Ordinary Monsters," a confusing pastiche of flickering moments, is impenetrable. Elsewhere, though, the author focuses with Carver-like intensity on his characters' lives; standouts include "Are You Mister Lonelee?" about a man who pretends his wife is dead when she's really just a different woman now, as wellas the time-bending, melancholy title story. Watson consistently delivers that elusive element great Southern writers have always brought to the table-a delicious sense of the unexpected.