Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives
Brad Watson writes the type of stories I should have appreciated more in high school. Tales of the darkness percolating beneath the seemingly innocuous surface of domestic life. Back then I dismissed these type of stories as too similar to everyday existence, but that is exactly the reason they resonate so deeply with me today. They perfectly convey the feeling of being out of phase, or as one of Watson's characters describes it, "...the inexplicable everyday, the oddness of being, the senseless belonging to this and not that."
The oddness begins during childhood, as we are introduced to three rambunctious brothers with maternal abandonment issues in Vacuum. From there, we are witness to all manner of strained familial relations and suburban malady- including, but not limited to- miscarriage, depression, divorce, and even incest. If it sounds bleak it's because it is. But these stories are not without their humor, dark though it may be. Because hey, if you can't laugh at a husband shooting himself in the foot to spite his wife, or a man losing a toe in a freak diving accident, what can you laugh at?
How about unwed teenage parents? Watson tops the whole thing off with what may be the strongest piece in the set- the titular novella Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives, in which an expectant couple explore their compatibility with a little help from a pair of escaped mental patients. Here Watson veers into the speculative territory of Kurt Vonnegut, expertly fusing science fiction with the mundane to dramatic effect. If only courtship were this easy in real life. There would be a whole lot less divorce. There'd be a whole lot less marriage, but it seems like a fair tradeoff.
The assured mining of dark subject matter on display brings to mind the work of Raymond Carver, or better yet, the stories in A Dream of Countries Where No One Dare Live, by Louis Phillips. Never heard of it? Dream is a gem of a collection, assigned to me in my college years by a professor who was a loyal friend of the author. This may seem akin to the government awarding oil contracts to Halliburton, but in this case Halliburton is a fantastic book of shorts that has stayed with me through the years like Kenny Rogers, so the good professor gets a pass. It was the first comparison I made after cracking the spine of Aliens, and I stand by it.
I would advise reading both books and putting it to the test. In a perfect literary world, authors like Phillips and Watson would be bestsellers. Unfortunately, all it takes is a quick scan of the top ten at your local bookshop to realize the literary world is far from perfect. It's a shame, really. There is no Wikipedia page for Brad Watson, author, but there is one for Brad Watson, NHL referee. It is a paltry 3 sentences long, but still. It seems a little unfair.
Yet somehow, I don't think Watson would mind. He is well aware life is a capricious little monkey, capable of slinging feces at a moment's notice. The best we can do is duck, and dream of a future where indolent high school students of all colors and creeds will read and disregard the stories of Brad Watson, only to realize their value and embrace them later on in life. If nothing else, it would make a great story. In fact, it sounds like something Watson would write about.