Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives

Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives

In this, his first collection of stories since his celebrated, award-winning Last Days of the Dog-Men, Brad Watson takes us even deeper into the riotous, appalling, and mournful oddity of human beings.

In prose so perfectly pitched as to suggest some celestial harmony, he writes about every kind of domestic discord: unruly or distant children, alienated spouses, domestic abuse, loneliness, death, divorce. In his masterful title novella, a freshly married teenaged couple are visited by an unusual pair of inmates from a nearby insane asylum—and find out exactly how mismatched they really are.

With exquisite tenderness, Watson relates the brutality of both nature and human nature. There’s no question about it. Brad Watson writes so well—with such an all-seeing, six-dimensional view of human hopes, inadequacies, and rare grace—that he must be an extraterrestrial.

“Brad Watson’s stories worm their way through you. Watson’s talent is singular, truly awesome; he reminds me of Raymond Carver, Flannery O’Connor, Chris Offutt in his bravery, his unflinching willingness to look at what might set others running. And yet these are not exactly dark stories – that is part of their magic, they are infused with an uncanny beauty in which even at the most god-awful moments, something is salvaged.”

     —A.M. Homes, author of This Book Will Save Your Life

“[Watson’s writing] is a fusion of the haunting beauty of Southern Gothic, the hardboiled and wry humor of Raymond Carver, and the unfathomable depth of a Primo Levi… rendered in utterly mesmerizing, limpid prose…. Mr. Watson’s rare talent shines and dazzles whenever he dives deep into the lives of ordinary people and comes up, almost effortless, with buried treasures that have blessed and cursed humanity: broken dreams, unfulfilled desires, [and] murderous intent.”

     —Yunte Huang, Santa Barbara News Press

Esquire review
By Daniel Torday Published: March 31, 2010

Sometimes it seems possible there’s no such thing as The South anymore. I’ve never lived in the South — I live in Philadelphia, where the second-person plural is “yous,” not “y’all” — but my wife is from North Carolina. On holidays in Raleigh all I see is the same thing I see up North: brand-new clapboard colonials and La Quintas and California Pizza Kitchens. And if there’s no more South, it would stand to reason there’s no more Southern literature, either.

Maybe this is nothing new. As early as 1962, no less Southern a writer than Flannery O’Connor declared, “Prophets have already been heard to say that in twenty years there’ll be no such thing as Southern literature.” To O’Connor, once the memories and shame of losing the Civil War died, and with them the “inburnt knowledge of human limitations,” Southern writing would be gone as well. It’s easy enough to assume that O’Connor’s augury has come to pass.

But then this month legendary Southern short story writer Barry Hannah died. And only a week later Brad Watson’s new book of stories, Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives, was released. The two writers are not just both from Mississippi — they’re from the same town of Meridian, Mississippi. And just as Larry McMurtry once claimed that Hannah was “the best fiction writer to appear in the South since Flannery O’Connor,” Hannah was an early and frequent champion of Watson’s work, which he deemed “genius.”

In Aliens, Watson — whose first story collection won the Sue Kauffman Award for First Fiction and whose novel The Heaven of Mercury was a National Book Award finalist — has imagined his Mississippians into La Quinta. Or a motel like it, anyway. Loomis, the narrator of “Visitation,” is recently estranged from his wife and kid. He has come to see his son in San Diego. He stays in a motel near his wife’s house, where, “With its courtyard surrounded by two stories of identical rooms, and excepting the lack of guard towers and the presence of a swimming pool, it followed the same architectural model as a prison.” The good old Southern vices are never far from Loomis, and as we learn more about his difficulties while he visits his son, we feel we’re in the presence of a recognizable misanthrope, one we’ve encountered in the pages of Walker Percy and Faulkner: “He checked that his son was still sleeping deeply, then poured himself a plastic cup of neat bourbon and went down to the pool to smoke and sit alone in the dark.”

The characters in Watson’s stories all share these proclivities: smoking and drinking and hunting and cussing and trouble-making their way through a South as idiosyncratic as O’Connor’s. Watson’s South is modernized, but it breathes the same gothic, aesthetically precise breaths as the finest Southern writing. In “Noon,” one of a trio of grieving women drunkenly declares, “‘I got a big old toe on me like the head of a ball-peen hammer…Billy says I could fuck a woman with that toe… I’m’on put it up his ass one day.” In “Vacuum,” a kid slits his brother up the back with a razor until “a bright red line of blood jumped up.” In “Alamo Plaza,” a fat man gets what’s coming to him when a diving board splits after he soaks sunbathers with multiple cannonballs: “Hanging there jammed tight in the split, a small blunt wedge drained of color, was what appeared to be [his] little toe.”

And in “Water Dog God,” the strongest story in Aliens, we meet Maeve, a feral Alabama teen whose father has made her, as Faulkner would say, “with child.” When Watson lets fly describing her, we see what he can do with his sentences: “I saw her little patch of frazzly hair and sex like a busted lip wanting nothing but to drop the one she carried. Probably no one could see her but God, after what all must have climbed into her, Old Uncle Sebastian and those younger boys of his.”

“The best American fiction has always been regional,” O’Connor said back in ’62, and it seems this claim holds true today, when shelves are packed with fiction by Dominican-Americans, Indian-Americans, Russian-Americans. The regions are just less regional; they’re countries from which all Americans, now more variously than ever, have arrived. It is the same today with Southern fiction.

The day of a Southern writer born in the South and knowing only some iteration of Yoknpatawpha County are over. Like Latvians writing not only about assimilating in New York but going home to bury their dead, and Indians writing not just about emigrating to Boston but returning to India as tourists, the new Southern literature is about the bleeding between north and south — and vice versa.

The ability of a writer like Watson to emigrate from his South and migrate his Southern sensibility into his writing keeps Southern literature breathing. It’s not lost on a reader that Watson himself lives and teaches in Wyoming today, not Alabama or Mississippi.