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Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives: Stories Hardcover – March 22, 2010
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From Publishers Weekly
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.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Ward and June Cleaver have no place in Watson’s dysfunctional world of divorce, alienation, and domestic unrest. Here, eccentricity and madness are the norm, and life, even in its best moments, is unrelentingly bleak. In “Vacuum,” three precocious boys come to the aid of their beleaguered mother. In “Are You Mister Lonelee?” a despondent widower finds solace in wayward women and booze. A married couple fights so bitterly in “Terrible Argument” that the husband shoots himself in the foot. A divorced man has an awkward visit with his son, a young girl is abused by her guardian, and a woman is haunted by the memory of her stillborn child. In the title story, a newly married teenage couple’s lives are forever changed by a visit from two insane-asylum inmates. National Book Award finalist Watson’s powerful stories are a real downer, although he has moments of dark humor, like one boy’s account of his family vacation, in which a fellow traveler breaks the motel diving board and loses his toe. “It was fantastic,” the young man writes. “It made the whole trip.” --Allison Block
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I picked this book up thinking it would be similar to the quirky hipster tales of Kelly Link, Karen Russell or Aimee Bender, so I was surprised to find a collection that shared more in common with the subtle, disquieting stories of Raymond Carver. That being said, I suspect I'm one of the few people out there who doesn't really "get" Carver, so coming from me, this comparison doesn't actually constitute the highest praise.
Watson's prose is spare and perfectly distilled to create a vague, low grade tension throughout each piece. There often seems to be something lurking just outside the margins, something unspoken and potentially appalling. Something that exists always just beyond the reader's peripheral vision. My favorite piece, "Terrible Argument," about the rapid disintegration of a marriage after one strange and violent episode, is told from the point of view of the couple's bewildered and melancholy dog. Another, "Fallen Nellie," relates the unfortunate history of the corpse of a young woman lying about ten feet from a hiking trail. The author focuses his lens on the minutiae of his character's lives, while the larger, and ostensibly more important issues, like racism, adultery, divorce, domestic violence, rape, incest, murder, serve as a backdrop or a by-product, kind of blurry and slightly surreal. This makes the experience of reading the stories more like scientific observation, as opposed to emotional engagement. I suspect this is the author's intent.
But it's not all doom and gloom. Watson still manages to insert scattered moments of dry, offbeat humor. Particularly in "The Misses Moses," in which a would be renter is doted upon by two spinster sisters or the opener, "Vacuum," wherein all hell breaks loose when a depressed mother of three nearly falls for the charms of an opportunistic neighbor. Ultimately though, both tales end on a poignant note.
I tend to shy away from contemporary short fiction, finding it more difficult to connect with than novel-length works. However, I approached Watson's work with an open mind and was rewarded with a collection that was both atmospheric and thought provoking.
Numerous short stories connected loosely by chronological events, and a geographical area from anywhere appurtenant to the Gulf of Mexico, to somewhere not far from the same, this book is a work where each part is very independent from the others.
Part of the magic is the topic. Part is the perspective. And, to each the writing is responsive.
The author effortlessly jumps into the skin of the main writer - often written in the first person - and delivers the patois, slang, articulate or inarticulate, and feminine or masculine perspective of the character around which the story revolves.
In the beginning, the author sees through the eyes of the young boys who seek to remedy their mother's blues - abandoned by a husband and left with three frolicking boys. In another, the story is seen through the eyes of a young man who pops in and out of reality while trying to handle his last teenage years together with parenthood. Others involve single fathers with troubled sons - reminiscent to Richard Ford's depressing Frank Bascombe; lonely-hearted drunks whose wives have left them; and, similarly lulling Americans seemingly imprisoned by their personal midlife crisis.
The cover mentions the similarities of this novelist to Flannery O'Connor. I see some, but O'Connor is much more edgy and touches a darker side of Americana which many would care not to read about or learn exists - often such stories are accompanied by rape, murder or mayhem. These are not, with one very small exception which is written in a way that the rape is almost indecipherably indiscreet.
Strong prose directed at difficult subjects such as depression and mental anguish, make this a strong book about serious topics with little comic fanfare or relief.