Other Voices Bookshelf

by Ruth Canji

Appears in Other Voices #31

Review: Nude in the Tub by G. K. Wuori

In "Nude," a story that comes close to being the title story of G.K. Wuori's collection, Nude In Tub, we are witness to the strange, funny predicament of a town clerk in love with the mayor of a godforsaken little town in Maine. All of Wuori's characters in this collection are related, loosely, as residents in or around Quillifarkeag, Maine, Quilli for short. The clerk, Pearson, is struggling with his unrequited feelings at the same time that he struggles with accepting the gruesome car crash he came upon, an accident that killed four teenagers. It is a subtle, longish story with oddities and unexpected facets of character and plot, and it shows G.K. Wuori's greatest strengths. He is at his best when he grounds violence and death in the ordinary, complex lives of unremarkable people.

Pearson's obsession with making sense of disorderly events leads him backwards in time as he adds his own notes to the margins of a town record book with no proper title, a journal of sundries: assessments, surveys, births, deaths, laws, amendments, accounts paid and unpaid, foreclosures, and figures both prosaic and puzzling. It is life represented, bulky, boring, and already lived. Except that Pearson uses that old, complicated life to make sense of the mess he's in now. He adds notes to the margins of the book, a radical act (for him) that culminates in the final, logical line to the story. Poor Pearson. His confession of love then is simple, jarring because it is hopeless and has too much weight and grief behind it. In dreaming of his boss, he comes up with lines like, "If you were a referendum I'd vote for you twice. If you were a tax I'd pay you more than once." Sometimes, nothing works.

The theme of the collection, I believe, can be found in Pearson's musings. In a close third person, he thinks that "if the inner pages, the centers, were the precise domain of the auditors, the margins belonged to the people, and if the people didn't have to have conclusions, didn't have to have a point, they had to have the voice, the start, the unhesitating urge to go on record." The characters who go on record are varied, quirky, always strange. Some of Wuori's characters and writing seem purposefully offbeat. He pushes the boundaries of personality, and his writing here goes beyond the constraints of normal life, portrayed realistically. Wuori is striving for something larger than the confines of character or psychology-driven fiction. He seems to be after nothing smaller than a portrait of America, America the unbeautiful, the oddball, the mean, the exposed. The characters' voices, housed in a collection not unlike a modern, prose version of Spoon River Anthology, are showcased with varying degrees of verisimilitude and success. Wuori's skill in blending the normal and the abnormal, which most often manifests itself in violence, is most effective when he allows his characters to resemble plausible people.

The ordinary, in Wuori's world, is not the usual. There is "Nose," an entertaining little story about a man named Quitno BlĒd who single-handedly saves a group of children and their teacher (his daughter, to boot) from a gun-and-grenade-wielding maniac in a McDonald's. There is "Glory," a less entertaining story about a woman named Elsie Feuilleloop who grows a pine tree out of her leg. Both stories, and many others, have oddness, humor, characters with strange names, and a certain element of gross-out that makes you wince. Sometimes the wincing is to a purpose, other times not. In one of the stories, a young husband says to his wife, "Life is short." "Be weird," she says back. The weirdness in Wuori is always there. Sometimes it seems forced, put on a story too slight for its burden. When it is earned, though, the results are stunning.

One of the most interesting stories in the collection is "Skunk," a very unlikely love story. Frank Terrible, a blind, retired army colonel, a Maliseet Indian, lives with Jenny Rain-and-Patch, a woman with a troubled past. The story builds slowly, carefully setting up their lives in a trailer set on thirty acres. Their troubles and hang-ups are exotic and familiar at once. The love and anger that fuel the story culminates in violence, as it often does in Wuori, except that this time it involves an animal-the skunk of the title. The way the couple negotiates the terms of their life together is rendered with both sympathy and coolness, a clear-eyed distance. At the heart of the story is the argument over whether or not they should have children: Jenny wants them, Frank doesn't. As large disagreements between couples go, it is deflected into many other troubles and becomes difficult to face head-on. Wuori writes that "all Frank wanted was one good reason why they should do that, and all Jenny wanted was one good reason why they should not and Frank didn't have that, or at least nothing beyond the shrill and semi-ideological ideas about it being such a vigorous and careless world. Jenny had to move gently there since 'careless' was of some sensitivity to Frank and the root of his adult blindness." The story itself moves gently as it relates the struggles of a couple with a relationship more unusual than many, but ultimately not more outrageous than anybody else's.

Wuori is anything but a didactic writer. You have to work to construct a "message." The gem of the collection is "Revenge," a scary story that could have been lifted from yesterday's headlines, if we only knew the true story behind a gas station robbery. It opens with the worst possible situation. Johnny, the owner, is taped to the cooler, helpless and furious at the two men outside who are brutalizing his wife, Janice. The matter-of-fact, blow-by-blow writing Wuori employs to tell Johnny and Janice's story emphasizes the horror of the plot. Johnny, Janice, and their two assailants are locked in a completely believable battle for their lives. There are moments, as the story increases in tension, when it seems that one pair has the upper hand, then the other. Wuori writes of what you fear, what you hope will never happen to you, and makes the most extreme situation seem clear and possible. It is in stories like this one that he writes of violence most adeptly. The events, the people, and the situations are real, grounded. The violence is terrible. The social setting is familiar. At the end of the story, Wuori does a writerly slight-of-hand that comes the closest in the collection to an exposition with a buried moral. Johnny, having turned the tables and captured the torturers, sees something he wishes he had not, a sign of weakness in his former captors that is troubling and calls everything into question. The coda at the end of "Revenge" is evasive, opaque, and necessary. Wuori seems to say, draw your own conclusions.

Wuori's best writing, in this collection and in other, uncollected stories I have read in the past, is surprising and elusive. When it jells, it has a clear, careful quality that gathers strength as the plot kicks in and the characters take on life. He has the ability to make even the strangest characters real. His less successful stories feature the same odd characters, the same settings, the same humor and harshness, but they lack the moral center, however slippery, that are at the heart of the best stories.

When Wuori's characters and plots and sociological astuteness meet up with his undeniable skill at writing sex and violence, the stories are resonant. We are engaged most deeply when physical violence matters, is not deflected by humor, when it affects characters that are rooted in time and place, humanity, and their own physicality. Then the humor is funny, the violence is really violent, and the stories are unforgettable.