Witchita Stories by Troy James Weaver
Future Tense Books, 2015; 200 pp
Reviewed by Kayla Rae Whitaker
A friend from Kansas told us a story of going into an open field with his brother and, on a dare, touching an electric fence, just to see if he could do it. The feeling, he said, was like a workboot kicking him square in the chest. The impact sent him flying. “I am lucky to be alive,” he told us.
Kansas is for survivors, a home truth that lives supreme in Troy James Weaver’s Witchita Stories (Future Tense Press, April 2015), a linked story collection teeming with those enduring the peril of their own lives. Attempting to lay definition to an entire city with one body of stories is tricky work, but Weaver does it well by framing it within the context of family in this mosaic of snapshots – brief, heart-stopping chapters often only a page in length.
Witchita details the narrator’s homelife through adolescence and beyond: his tough yet fragile father, a chain-smoking Vietnam vet who drank “cough syrup like it was going out of style…doing that shit way before Lil Wayne even materialized as a sperm,” and his older sister, who, he tells himself, “until further notice…loves you the best she knows how.” Chief focus, however, is placed on the narrator’s beloved older brother, a budding addict who becomes “lost somewhere” between the narrator and their sister as he descends into illness.
With compelling clarity of vision, the narrator records family drama as only the youngest can, knowing, as most youngest family members do, that his own story will forever be tertiary to that of his older siblings. He becomes the reporter supreme, documenting hurts, debts, and legends for the final record. Witchita benefits from the grace and confidence of the narrator’s voice as he catalogues his sister’s shady boyfriends, redneck neighbors, casual high school cruelty, and a path to manhood punctuated with a growing awareness that “Impermanence is a fact. Nothing lasts forever exactly as it is.” The collection transitions effortlessly from heartbreaking darkness – the suicides of peers, the stark realities of depression – to humor (I refuse to spoil the “Poop Boots” incident for you; rest assured, it is reason enough to pick up the book).
Most striking is the narrator’s willingness to portray honest, unrestrained ambivalence about his family when it would be far easier to resort either to sentimentality or outright condemnation. Being a part of a troubled family is, like being part of any family, a varied experience. The narrator recounts life with his brother in tones light and dark; he suffers, in hideous detail, every frame of his brother’s decline into drug use, finding himself unable to recount childish incidents of theft and wayward play without the knowledge of future events – jail time, HIV scares, meth- casting a long shadow.
Yet his anger is cut with a love unafraid to show its teeth: “I remember putting a fishhook through his thumb when we were little kids,” he recounts, “before all that ink and bars came between us, and feeling so bad I kissed it: the hole, the blood – and I’d do it again. In a heartbeat, just give me that goddamn thumb and I’ll know and you’ll know how much it is I really love him. What’s that boo-boo lip out for? Suck it up, I’d tell him. Be a man.” The narrator reports from a place where disappointment and hope become one writhing, vibrant animal: “Even when I feel like I feel all this hate in me,” he confirms, “I realize it’s just my love with nowhere to go.”
The narrator’s self-discovery finds an excellent setting in working-class Wichita, described as a singular universe teetering on the edge of development and wilderness, a metropolis in the midst of the dark, tangled rural. For a boy, it is a world equal parts frog hunting and Sega, safety and peril: in this Wichita, a dead fisherman sits on a boat mid-lake, the heft of fish on the line bending his pole. The memory of the BTK Killer haunts the generations, a subject around which parents skirt. There are date nights at Bingo Palace and afternoons lost in the time-honored ritual of snorting crushed pills in someone’s basement while listening to Joy Division: “Things went fuzzy, chaotic, and I stood there, the loner, watching the sweat drip from their earlobes, wondering whose heart would be the first to collapse beneath the weight of the god-awful boredom of this place.” A neighboring car pulls a gun on the narrator at a quiet 1:00 AM intersection, yet he walks away, alive, marveling, “The world is full of possibilities.”
A product of Portland’s Future Tense Books, those who like to nerd out on presentation will be pleased with the book’s make – a truly badass cover featuring the signage of Kansas’s foremost abandoned amusement park, Joyland, and chapters peppered with landscape shots that anyone who has spent time on a city’s fringes will recognize with a pang: drainpipes, quarries, the ragged, wooded edges of subdivisions. While the images are presumably of Wichita, they could be the veins and gristle of any city, both the lightness and darkness of the heart. In this, the design serves its excellent content well.