Brad Watson’s aliens
By SUSAN CHAMANDY  |  March 23, 2010

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS: Watson’s characters yearn for a home they once knew.

Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives | By Brad Watson | W.W. Norton | 268 pages | $23.95
The characters in Brad Watson’s new short-story collection tune in to unearthly energies and heed otherworldly guidance, but they are, finally, all too human — just looking for a little transcendence. Watson is primarily a realist, writing fiction about domestic uproar, loneliness, and loss with uncommon tenderness. In this third book, the first since his novel The Heaven of Mercury made him a finalist for the National Book Award in 2002, he explores being alien — in its many manifestations.

In the title story, two teenage newlyweds are visited by aliens on their wedding night, and what follows changes the course of their lives. Or at least, the visitors appear to be aliens. They wear pajamas and experiment on their human subjects. But they also bring really good fried chicken, and in Watson’s hands, their project is like no alien project you’ve ever heard of.

Watson’s “aliens” are divorced fathers who feel alien to their children, children who wonder where and to whom they belong, lovers who barely recognize each other. Baffled at the oddness of being, they all continue to try. In “Terrible Argument,” a married couple can’t stop arguing. Watson’s wry depiction is pitch-perfect: “Each believed sex to be a great mediator, a mollifier, a rich black coal to stoke the fire of love. . . . Timing was crucial, however, and almost never correct. You couldn’t make your move a moment too soon, or the argument started right back up, and to wait a moment too late was futile, exhausting, as if years had passed. . . .” Domestic tension quickly reels out of control. The warring married couple end up with a gun in the house. Furious one night, the husband shoots himself in the foot to make some kind of point, perhaps to have the last word — and the wife leaves him.

In the chaotic and comical “Vacuum,” three brothers who have dedicated themselves to finding their overwrought mother some household help get sidetracked and end up causing her even deeper distress. Lost in their wonderful, stupid boy-ness, they watch a Western on TV and then experiment with leaping off the roof onto their toy horse down below, “their old rocky horse,” in order to answer the timeless question, “How does he jump off the top of a house like that and land on the horse and not rack his balls?”

The characters in Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives long for a home — a security, a sense of belonging — they once knew. In the darkest story here, “Water Dog God,” a widower alone on his remote mountain property, and long out of work, takes to caring for his teenage cousin, who’s wandered onto his property after a tornado. She’s pregnant, and it’s clear to him that it’s a case of incest. “I knew her as my Uncle Sebastian’s youngest child, who wouldn’t ever go out of her room.” They watch movies together until three in the morning — something his wife used to do while she was dying, “her body sifting little by little into the air.” Caring for his cousin gives him a sense of purpose until, in a dark turn, he understands that his love for her has grown more complex — and “unspeakable.”

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