When I was a senior in college, Brad Watson came to my campus for a reading. He was on tour for his novel The Heaven of Mercury. I don’t recall exactly which parts of that novel he read, but I do remember him being warm and funny, the kind of presence that puts the jittery young writers in the crowd at ease. I was, of course, one of those writers. In just a handful of months, I’d be graduating and moving on to an MFA program, and I wasn’t entirely convinced that I had what it took to make it as a writer. So his humble, workmanlike approach to the reading made me feel like maybe there wasn’t that big of a gap between him and me. I bought a copy of the novel and of his first book, Last Days of the Dog-Men, a collection of short stories. In the intervening years, I’ve read the two books a half-dozen times each, and they get better every time.
Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives came out three years ago, and I’m just now reading it. There’s a reason for this, though I won’t try to claim that it’s a good one. I could say that I’ve been busy in those three years, that I just haven’t had a chance to read the book, and that wouldn’t be entirely inaccurate. It’s true that I’ve been busy, but it’s also true that I’ve read many books in that three year stretch. The reason it took me so long to dig into Watson’s newest is that I was more than a little afraid that it wouldn’t live up to my unreasonable expectations. I’ve spent the better part of a decade putting his first two books near the top of my pyramid of Works That Influenced Me Greatly.
I’m happy to report that my fears were completely unfounded. Watson didn’t forget how to write. He got better. Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives is one of the finest collections of stories I’ve read in years. It’s brutal and incisive and funny and heartbreaking in all the best ways.
Watson’s always been concerned with the lives of people who’ve bottomed out. His stories tend to get rolling right around the time that his characters sink to their lowest point. The stories in Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives are no exception. They dig into the lives of the adrift, the rootless, the dangerous and deranged. The beauty of the book is that Watson is able to write about these people without pity, mercy, or judgment. He’s a chronicler, first and foremost. What truly elevates the stories is his stylistic play.
Take for example, the wonderful story “Terrible Argument.” The plot of the story is pretty standard American realist stuff. A married couple gets into a series of increasingly brutal arguments. By the end of the story the wife has left the husband. There’s not much plot-wise that would distinguish the story from a dozen Raymond Carver stories. In Watson’s hands, though, that core feels fresh. The narrative voice stays removed, never naming the couple, avoiding judgment and commentary. That simple choice elevates the couple’s story near the level of myth. Rather than avoiding the stereotypes of this kind of story, Watson writes into them, reclaiming them as fundamental truths rather than hokey clichés.
One of the things I’ve always admired about Watson is that he’s never afraid to change his writing to serve the needs of the individual story. The stories in Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives shift radically in tone, style, voice, and narrative focus. Some are straight forward, some are experimental, but what’s important here is that each decision he makes feels necessary. He’s willing to try different things for the sake of the story. That willingness serves Watson well. There’s not a dull moment in the collection.
Ten years ago, in that crowded auditorium, listening to Watson read, I took a few steps on my path to being a writer. All these years later, it’s nice to, again, sit for a while at the feet of a master.
Pages: 263 FOA Pages: 18,887