If you put your characters in kitchens with whiskey and make them argue, you’re going to be compared to Raymond Carver. That’s one of the scenes that plays out in “Vacuum,” the opener to Brad Watson’s new short-story collection Aliens In The Prime Of Their Lives. Watson has also been compared to Flannery O’Connor, mostly because his pieces are set in the American South—places with well-lit front porches, yellowish homemade mayonnaise in the fridge, and trees so ancient, their branches kiss the ground.
Yet for every sketch that might ring familiar, Watson weaves in events that would seem utterly impossible if they weren’t so stealthily submitted. They’re like staring into simple still-lifes until odd details jump into view. “Vacuum,” from the perspective of a trio of kid brothers, is framed by all the traditional signposts of the American domestic-disaster story—booze, adultery, housework, etc. Yet in the end, all the violence is meted out by toys, as if to mock the somber proceedings as mere play. In “Visitation,” a divorced father brings his son to a motel that becomes haunted by possible gypsies precisely because there is so little else extraordinary about the place (or the world, for that matter). The novella-length title story introduces a teenage couple dealing with an unwanted pregnancy, and veers straight into Rod Serling territory with a straight face, daring readers to disbelieve a single moment. (Though the inclusion of mental patients from a nearby hospital is arguably a too-obvious device thrown in to subvert the proceedings.)
While most of the ground covered is decidedly bleak—with divorce, stillborn infants, and wrecked lives—there’s humor too. (“Alamo Plaza,” for example, hilariously evokes a fat man’s tragic exploits on a hotel diving board.) But by fusing the ordinary with the extraordinary, Watson writes in a kind of hybrid music. Those who listen too closely will see right through to the trick. But readers who let these stories roll over them like one of Watson’s warm Southern gales will learn to live comfortably in his country and believe in its people.