by Theodore Wheeler
2016, Queens Ferry Press
Theodore Wheeler has a knack for place. The stories in his debut collection, Bad Faith, paint a picture of small towns and dingy lifestyles, rich with details of location that never feel overly wrought. He’s got talent for perspective, too. Although the opening story, “The Mercy Killing of Harry Kleinhardt,” begins in third person, objectively, it moves to a sparse, “Hills Like White Elephants” construction that switches between the protagonist Aaron’s perspective and a woman of his interest, Jessica. It’s that fly-on-the wall sort of narrative that’s good in small doses and the mere two pages he gives us do well not to overdo this.
In “The Missing” the prose gets even sparser–It reads fast and it’s supposed to. It doesn’t have the same detail as “Mercy Killing,” but we don’t need much. The ambiguity of sentences like, “Worthy told Steve they’d go to the mountains the next day” have you wondering, what? Mountains? Who’s Worthy? Like the beginning of a Christopher Nolan movie, it doesn’t really matter. We’re compelled to see where the action goes but not compelled to figure out why they’re headed where they’re headed. Wheeler, fittingly, also doesn’t use quotations, almost Cormac McCarthy-style, heightening the story’s momentum.
Steve, our aforementioned protagonist in “The Missing,” is awful, and not anti-hero awful where we kind of love him. He really has no redeeming qualities. He refers to his daughters by number. The most interesting character is Worthy, who has this legendary Dean Moriarty-like quality: “Worthy belonged to no one in particular. Worthy belonged everywhere.” Steve does feel some remorse for leaving his kids and wife, but Worthy is that voice that assures him it’s okay to be a misogynistic free-spirited ass. Once again, Wheeler paints that picture in our head slowly, this time of a completely different landscape: San Salvador.
Sometimes the stories in Bad Faith don’t go anywhere, but you won’t mind. In “How to Die Young in a Nebraska Winter,” a kid reminisces over his lost friend, who died of an asthma attack. It’s true to what my imagination informs me losing a friend this way would do to you. Our protagonist plays the death over and over again in his mind:
I imagined what it would have been like to be there when Brandon died, plotting out the manual. Brandon dancing around the living room, lifting his knees above his waist, arms churning, a big goofy grin. He stops. Coughs out half-chewed bits of popcorn, hands at his throat, fingers probing his mouth. He looks at Brenda, eyes watering, then walks to her. She asks him what’s the matter, pats his back then moves behind him for the Heimlich. This makes the boy vomit. They panic, recognizing an asthmatic fit, but he’s still choking. It would happen too quickly to really know what was what.
Here, in gruesome detail, is Wheeler at his best. However, the details aren’t described in that Faulknerian, overly-complex way that so many writers think is necessary for stories to be interesting. The sentences are simple enough we get the point without having to think too much. Wheeler isn’t trying to be too academic. He’s trying to tell good stories and he succeeds. Example: “Services were held at a Presbyterian church in Bancroft that smelled like formaldehyde.” We don’t even need to know what formaldehyde smells like–the word is unpleasant enough.
In “Impertinent, Triumphant” two unfaithful married people spend time together, mostly talking about each other’s spouses. It’s a bittersweet story, one that has a lot to say without being too on the nose about it. Marriages can be happy, even if a bit boring. You fight, but you function. Marriage also can be miserable, but goes on despite Jacq, the narrator’s wife saying things like, ‘“Even if the plane crashes and I die, I’ll be glad to do it alone.’”
The content of Wheeler’s writing changes drastically in “The Current State of the Universe,” a story about a man who works for a company that seeks revenge for those who have been picked on, catcalled, etc. Where the subject matter was more realistic, here it becomes a bit strange. A man who deals in karma who ironically feels the victim of karma himself turns over a new leaf and instead begins work for a company that does good deeds. It’s funny, yet the content isn’t exactly lighthearted. When the protagonist leaves the revenge business and takes up work in the good deed industry, he comes across some poor unfortunate souls, including cancer patients and addicts. Instead of a feel-good redemption story, he ends up falling a bit deeper despite his efforts.
Wheeler’s obsession with death continues in “Attend the Way.” It doesn’t take much description, only the terse actions of the Rodney, the protagonist’s interactions with the elderly, to make us cringe at the smell of retirement homes and funeral parlors. As with death, the theme of men’s relationships with their mothers continues on as well. The funeral that Rodney is attending is his mother’s, whom he never visited. Previously, in “How to Die Young in Nebraska” it is explained to the young boy that often a mother does not attend the funeral of her son because it is too painful. In “Attend the Way” the situation is reversed, though Rodney is an adult steeped in regret and guilt.
With each story comes a new setting and with familiar but diverse characters, from white to biracial, from Omaha to Nebraska to El Salvador, Wheeler shows a world of hard-boiled bitter men, death, and complicated relationships with women. And for that matter, the toxic masculinity that causes boys to force themselves on girls and not taking no for an answer. There’s a shame that comes along with that, the self-blaming that causes young women to believe it’s their fault: “The part I felt bad about was how I betrayed myself by getting wet. I tried to explain to Sammy how I hadn’t wanted to do it, once it was done.” What’s even more haunting is the reaction of the other girls: “‘We were watching,” she confessed. “‘That’s pretty much how it’s supposed to go. Don’t turn yourself into a victim.’”
In the titular, closing story, “Bad Faith,” once again the content takes a dramatic shift into thriller territory. This shift, maybe something close to an M. Night Shyamalan-like twist, is masterfully set up in the stories proceeding it. I’ll avoid the spoilers, but it gets intense. What isn’t a spoiler is that Wheeler’s dark and borderline-joyless world conjures nothing but good faith in the promise of more stories.