In ‘Construction’, the opening story of Troy James Weaver’s Selected Stories, a worker—Kit—finds a plush alien in the dirt. “I saved him,” he says, holding the toy up for his colleagues. “Look he’s still breathing […] He’s still alive. Can you believe it? I can hardly believe he’s still alive.”
The others are awkward, unable to meet his eye, mumbling about the heat and offering water. For Kit lost his son a year ago, and though the men had been teasing him about his drinking that morning, something about the new scene seems unbearable for them. They go to the foreman, get Kit the afternoon off, tell him to make the most of it.
Kit straps the toy into the passenger seat and drives to the hotel, taking it up to his room to wash it and dry it with a blow dryer. “What’s your name?” he asks the alien, but of course the alien does not answer. Eventually Kit grows frustrated, angry even. The thing hadn’t even said thank you.
“He kept touching the alien’s wrist and telling it to say something, anything,” Weaver writes. “He felt he was owed something, even though he wanted something more than that.” With no response, Kit gets Zippo fluid from the Bible drawer and douses the alien, setting it alight. “It was hard to feel any pain or sadness,” Weaver continues. “He wasn’t mourning. Of course his son was dead.”
The story is a neat encapsulation of Weaver’s work, a tale pitiful and ordinary and bleak that nonetheless hinges on one incandescent moment. Those beats between the Zippo’s flame rising and the fire consuming the toy, where everything is bright and nothing is final. The characters of Selected Stories occupy such moments, the weightless space between hurting and feeling the hurt, a place strangely euphoric if only for the smallest second. For nothing is decided yet, or rather the consequences have not come to pass.
Take ‘Orthodontics’, which channels Angels-era Denis Johnson in its tale of two surfers who rescue a volatile Flat Earther from a cop. They take him home to play along with Jeopardy!, and when the man’s girlfriend arrives they start up about the earth being flat once more. “I knew it was stupid,” Weaver’s narrator admits. “Something about it, though, just closed off all the nerve points and made me numb. And after an hour or two, I really started to like him.” The evening grows dreamy and strange, meandering into drugs and false meaning as the narrator forgets his pain and grows convinced he loves the woman.
The next morning brings with it a stinging reality that punctures this feeling. Such a sucker punch is key to Weaver’s work, like a series of comedowns after brief moments of epiphany. His characters are invariably normal people living normal lives—working, loving, losing—crushed under the banal cruelty of being alive or else chasing it off with chemicals and self-delusion. Even the overtly surreal stories—that of a man assembling a doll to look like his dead wife, or the limbless woman towed in a red wagon by a pre-teen kid—possess a mundane edge, ordinary people cast into extraordinary circumstances and unable to live up to the change—like addicts breaking from the warm comfort of a high and having to learn the world’s edges anew.
The only way out, it seems, is not to escape but accept the reality of the situation. Weaver captures this best through the protagonist of ‘Daydream Nation’, an ex-con who, on hitching a ride home from prison, lands in a car with a guy who claims he can read palms and auras. “I just wanted to be home,” the narrator says, “on my own soil. I wanted to lounge around on my old furniture, loiter inside my ex-wife, and fish the silver water next to Skillet rock, remember what it was like to be a boy discovering the world for the first time.” Only he’s not home, not yet, and when he gives in and asks the mystic driver for his fortune, it becomes clear that he never will be.
Perhaps he learnt this in prison or perhaps he’s suspected it all along, and the violent denouement of the piece could also serve as that of Selected Stories as a whole. The man kills the driver, “le[aving] him with his neck like a rubber band on the shoulder of the highway,” and assumedly scuppers his potential freedom with it. But while there is no answer in the rash heat of the moment, there is something. Call it distraction, call it hope. Or rather call it the renunciation of hope, the shedding of the vulnerability it brings. “It’s the closest I’ve come to touching the spiritual,” the narrator says in the aftermath of his actions. “Like dancing around inside the skins of ghosts.” That weightless space, euphoric, where nothing is decided yet, or rather the consequences have not come to pass.