The Austin Chronicle

Book Reviews

Reviewed by Tyler D. Johnson, October 27, 2000, Books

Head: Stories

by William Tester

Sarabande Books, 200 pp., $19.95

These are 10 stories about the subconscious and the unspoken erupting into daily life and, thankfully, William Tester owns the language to convey the undercurrents. In a lesser writer's hands, these would be 10 stories about disturbed, horny people. Head is an apt title; the stories center on desire, constant worry, fear, or all three at once. The characters are the prisoners of American society that many of us know -- they are trapped in their own isolation, their inability to trust, and their fear of honest communication. Tester finds an artery for this modern dread and taps it well.

The first story, "Wet," begins: "Like it wants something, barbwire bites at my T-shirt and nicks my belly and my chest." The sensuality, threat, and pressing desire are a constant in varying forms throughout. "Wet" follows two teenage brothers through an afternoon of being bullied by their stepfather, Lloyd, to lay a barbed-wire fence, a section of which runs through a lake in Florida. A fierce storm approaches and Lloyd is unrelenting in his demands that they work and get in the water as lightning begins to shatter the day and draws closer to their metal rowboat. The story's tense climax is when a child starts making adult choices, crossing the border.

Several of the stories loosely follow one character, Nim, and his internal struggle to connect with women, the world, his life. The holy, youthful days of being vivaciously independent and reckless are looked to again and again from the vantage point of later disappointments. Tester's language saves this from becoming elevated whining. While at a late-night NYC diner with a friend and two girls, the stuttering narrator of "Where the Dark Ended" can do little more than absorb: "Amazing, the intensity of living back then. Each night. First we drank, then we sat and had coffee. Around us, defeated old people like candle nubs, nothing-eyed, prayed to their cups in the diner."

Men and women fare poorly in these stories. Forget the gender gap; it's more like a foreign-language gap. The women are smart and willing to engage while the men are simultaneously paralyzed by lust, a panoply of fears, and an isolation they are unable to break with words -- hence, the lust. Sex is a connection, mute and powerful, but fleeting.

The individual in isolation is the focus here and there is a sense of Faulkner's world, of people left in a land where God was palpably just there, but isn't anymore. In "Cousins," the boy working in a field thinks upward from a beetle attacked by ants to his possible place in the scheme of things: "I don't see how God could think of everything at once, each nothing twig and little desert. I think God has turned his back on all us bugs."

Abandonment by God is an arguable concept; people living with and next to each other is not. For all of the excruciating stories of desperation and solitude, Head closes with a story of the hushed intensity between two people in a night bed: "It is not that we're so perfect; her skin feels wet where my breath was. But we're safe. Our heater roars below, and something else. I can hear it, the blood rushing inside of us." Tester's point reaches through our boundaries: In this increasingly anonymous, machined society, we need more of each other, not less.

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