by W.D. Wetherell
reviewed by ana logue
by W.D. Wetherell
Frustration, despair, and shallow, escapist dreams, such is the stuff of the stories that fill our fiction rejections folder at PW. Here we meet disposable people made smaller than life by the pettiness of their surroundings; people in fiberglass cages armored with fantasies of violence; people on assembly lines relating to others as harmful objects. Scratch a working stiff, their authors seem to argue, and you'll find thirst for revenge. It is as if the very condition of work precluded any finer passion than rage. Maybe imagination atrophies under fluorescent lights.
The most disturbing aspect of these stories, however, is not the misery they portray, but the fact that the characters are often too diminished in their humanity to be of any interest to the reader. Sometimes it feels that the authors themselves are the trapped personas they describe, but, being trapped, they lack the larger vision or spiritual depth their stories require. Identifying with characters is not the same as understanding them or showing compassion for their situation. On the other hand, one must search long and hard among contemporary writers to find one who attempts a sympathetic—but unsentimental—portrait of the working person.
The K-Mart/Condo ambience of a Raymond Carver or Frederick Barthelme is too ironic and sharp-edged for our purposes. Their Everyman stumbling along in supermarket parking lots loaded down with frozen dinners and six-packs of beer is a literary construction of what people might be like if they tried to be what they consumed or saw on television. The other side of the genre is Anne Beattie with her decidedly unironic representations of the heartaches of the yuppie woman.
In sharp contrast to the irony and sentiment of Carver, Beattie and company stands W.D. Wetherell who proves it is possible to write well and compassionately about people whose stories rarely reach us. I am speaking of blue-collar workers stranded in the post-industrial age. Max Apple probably had this interest in the proletariat in mind when he compared Wetherell, the author of THE MAN WHO LOVED LEVITTOWN, to Sherwood Anderson, whose WINEBERG, OHIO appeared in the 1930s. Stylistically, he is more like John Updike than Anderson, but Updike's world is upwardly mobile and increasingly anachronistic.
The saying goes that you cannot judge a person until you have walked a mile in his shoes. In story after story, Wetherill eases you into his protagonists' shoes and then leaves you limping, but with respect for their owner's person. In the title story, the shoes belong to Tommy DiMaria, World War II vet, retired Grumman aircraft worker, who has lived in Long Island's Levittown for 32 years and doesn't want to move even though his old neighbors have long since retired to Florida, his wife is dead, and his children grown up. As an old, working-class man occupying prime real estate he is an affront to the community of younger, middle-class families.
The story is told in the first person with a lot of humor. He describes his first visit to Long Island right after the war, "Potato fields. Nothing but. French-fried heaven, not another car in sight. I stop at a diner for coffee. Farmers inside look me over like I'm the tax man come to collect. Bitter. Talking about how they were being run off their places by these new housing developments you saw advertised in the paper, which made me mad because here I am a young guy just trying to get started."
The historical touch is eerie. Driving through Long Island now it's impossible to imagine its wall-to-wall suburban communities ever having been farms. Likewise, in one deft line, Wetherell invokes the economic uncertainty of the immediate post war period. When he approaches Levittown, the mass produced houses are just being built, or better said, assembled. "Down the street is a Quonset hut with a long line of men waiting out front, half of them still in uniform. Waiting for jobs I figure, like in the Depression ... here we go again." Then it finally hits him: "What these men are lined up for isn't work, it's homes!" Homes that cost $7,000; only $100 down if you were a vet. Still DiMaria had to work at two jobs and his wife had to wait tables for them to keep up with the mortgage payments.
DiMaria suffers from 50's nostalgia with a vengeance. Those were the years when he and his working class buddies helped each other raise families and put additions on to their houses. "There wasn't anything we wouldn't do for each other. Babysit, drive someone somewhere, maybe help out with a mortgage payment someone couldn't meet." But now it's the 80's, the $7,000 house is worth $55,000, and all the "pioneers" have long since sold out to middle-management types and retired to Florida. Only DiMaria remains. His neighbors keep pressuring him to move. They test his resolve to stay with screams and threats. His garbage is spilled, his mail stolen, they even arrange to have his house reassessed. Finally one neighbor purposely runs over his dog.
And still we are walking in his shoes. When he discovers who killed his dog, he plots his revenge. "I didn't do it right away. We had a tradition in the old days. You had a score to settle, you took your time. I waited for the first stormy night, went over there with two buckets of the cheapest red paint money could buy."
Then all of a sudden the shoes start hurting; our hero, it turns out, has painted a giant swastika on his Jewish neighbor's house. "There were pictures of it in the paper, editorials saying Levittown has gone to hell which was true but for the wrong reasons."
Thirty years ago, the Northeast was called the Industrial Northeast and Americans were proud that workers could lead middle-class lives. At the time, it was not realized that this was merely a fluke in economic history. The story that follows "The Man Who Loved Levittown", relates a day in the life of a working man who might well be a Vietnam veteran.
"They had lasagna for Thanksgiving dinner that year. The meatless kind. From a can." So begins If a Woodchuck Could Chuck Woodchuck. Talk about misery: what could compare to the poverty of an unemployed worker's family in Maine? Mike's anger at his failure to feed his family or heat his house poisons the air like industrial pollution. He does not have to be in the house for his wife, or father, or 7-year-old son to feel it, and there's no appeasing it. When his father, Mike Senior a part-time janitor in Boston, visits for the holiday, he notices the house is being heated by a wood stove. This is an economy measure, since Mike can no longer afford to pay for oil for the furnace. Mike Senior tells him about his own grandfather's wood stove. "Mike sat on the couch nursing a beer. His face had hardened since the last time Mike Senior had seen him. There was something reproachful about his prematurely gray hair, his tired eyes. 'You never showed me, Pop. You never taught me about wood stoves when I was small.' "
"It took Mike Senior off guard. The frowning. The green work pants he hadn't bothered to change out of. He wished Shawn would come back from wherever he was hiding. 'Well, no. Of course, because we didn't have one. We had a furnace.' "
Then Mike asks, "'Was that the same grandfather whose brother starved to death on the way out West?"
This is a frightening and frightened America, an America without heat or turkey on Thanksgiving, an America that squandered the good will of the Indians. This is an America without dreams—go West and starve to death. "Things will get better," Mike Senior whispers to his grandson. "I promise," the grandfather says, and the child responds: "From all the frustration and fear he finally found the word he was groping for all afternoon. "Liar!"
Wetherell may have already secured a place in American literary history as one of the first chroniclers of the depression of the 1980's. Meanwhile, here at Processed World, I am waiting for the still unwritten (or unpublished) story that perfectly captures the horror and the humanity of the people behind the beige cubicle walls.