A Moody Fellow Finds Love and Then Dies by Douglas Watson
Outpost 19, 2014; 170 pp
Reviewed by Zach VandeZande
There’s a certain marketing savvy in releasing a book on April Fool’s Day, as Outpost 19 has chosen to do with Douglas Watson’s newest, especially when that book has such a buzzy, literal title. And yes, there’s a certain very funny sense of play in Watson’s writing that can’t be ignored. His first collection, The Era of Not Quite, opens with the story “Against Specificity,” which deals with a character pining over Thing A even though he should be perfectly content with Thing B. By getting right down to the dumb and literal nature of desire and its tendency to go unfulfilled, Watson turns what should be a very boring story into a wry joke that pokes the reader right in a sore spot.
That spirit continues here. Watson writes plain-spoken, dry sentences that hammer details other writers would miss or overlook for their banality—in describing a Scrabble game, for example, Watson writes, “’Bingo,’ said Kate. This was what a player said when she was able to play all her tiles in one turn. This was bad news for the other player or players.” By laying even the most basic ideas out like this, Watson’s able to get away with doing the same for big ideas: “There’s been a war, he thought(picturing the charred corpses that day’s newspaper had shown), but we’re all supposed to just get on with our lives as if nothing had happened. It was his first real lesson in philosophy.”
The novel is instruction-manual blunt, and it’s willing to deal with what other novels would eschew—Scrabble games and making spaghetti—and the effect builds to what amounts to a very funny joke indeed, a great big April fool about a simple man’s needs and desires, and a girl so beautiful she kills people (echoes of Tom Robbins’/David Foster Wallace’s themes re: women and beauty, here and throughout the book; I’m generally wary of this kind of writing in the hands of white male authors, but Watson handles it well and both avoids the manic-pixie-dream-girliness of it and doesn’t seem to step in any of the misogynist traps that he’s laid out for himself in having a character whose power is primarily in her sexuality), and the artistic merit of cubes.
What I hope readers won’t miss, though, is the soulfulness running right underneath the surface of the playfulness. Strip away the wit and glee and there’s a bildungsroman about pain and yearning, about what it means to be let down by your community, and about the central unfairness of being alive. Moody Fellow (of course that’s his name) does find love, and then, of course, he dies. Through it all we have the narrator (who refers to himself in the royal we), a comforting and guiding hand who isn’t afraid to moralize a little bit or say exactly what a thing means or is supposed to mean. It’s the kind of writing that many people are leery of, though really, that fear is rooted in the worry that a simply said thing is a stupidly said thing. Watson says his simply, with grace and wit. In this way he calls to mind the best of Vonnegut, and I’m glad to give him a place nearby on my bookshelf.