The Wavering Knife by Brian Evenson
Brian Evenson lets us observe our own penchant for carnage. In The Wavering Knife, his latest collection of bleak and hilarious satire, Evenson presents crimes of passion, both romantic and religious, by way of a human universal: latent violence. Story after story presents us with unspeakable acts related in a sympathetic, logical manner. We find ourselves nodding with understanding when a sociopath drowns his lover, or when a zealot enters a Wal-Mart strapped with dynamite and a desire to make a big impression. That is not to say the stories aren’t disturbing -- they are -- but that Evenson’s details and descriptions immerse the reader so thoroughly that moral judgments are suspended until the narration ends.
In one of the early stories, "Moran’s Mexico," Evenson plays with the relationship between writers, creating a funny pseudo-academic article in which one author refutes a work of fiction based loosely on an earlier, non-fictional work. The story plays out in a critical evaluation of an argument, complete with footnotes. In "The Intricacies of Post-Shooting Etiquette," the author spooks us with a semi-comical chronology of torture that kicks off with the narrator absent-mindedly attempting to murder his lover.
Evenson’s writing is peppered with comic flags -- unusual German surnames, for example, and broad Christian good-old-boy stereotypes with names like "Verl" and "Burl." Despite this quirk, the humor is subtle, and often sinister. In the fantastic story "The Prophets," Evenson’s righteously offbeat narrator decides to save the church by bringing a great preacher’s corpse back to life. He is unsure how to accomplish this, however, and at one point resorts to trying to startle the body back to its senses:
I decided that maybe a body dead and buried and in the ground for as long as that and made up now to look worse than it had in the ground might need some surprise or some kind of jump-start. So I kept on crouching down and hiding behind him, then leaping out yelling, “Rise up and walk! Rise up and walk!” It seemed like a good idea at first but after a few hours the idea didn’t seem so good to me anymore, but God knew I had tried so for once he let me get some sleep.
These characters and others like them pop up repeatedly in The Wavering Knife, and in a sense become Evenson’s mascots in his explorations of religion, hypocrisy, and cross-dressing. "The Promisekeepers" finds our heroes stumbling drunkenly through the motions of fraternal bonding. In "Barcode Jesus" the boys get the idea to set up a church in the local Super Wal-Mart, between the McDonald’s and the Wells Fargo. In each case, the humor is counterbalanced by a touch of menace, and the reader’s laughter often comes with a nervous sweat.
But the stories get darker still. In "The Ex-Father," at once frightening and very moving, a young girl loses her mother to violent suicide, and is thrust into the care of her emotionally distant father. It is not merely the ferocity of the violence in this story that makes an impact, but Evenson’s brilliant details which breathe life into the children and nail them to the reader’s mind. A brief example well-observed action: "…she and the youngest girl had dumped their backpacks onto the couch and went into the kitchen to have some bread. The way they liked their bread was squished; they liked to take a piece of it and crush it down in their fists until it was a dense ball, and then sit on the counter and nibble away at it, sometimes pretending to be animals; mice usually, but other animals too."
I was personally taken aback by this description because it is precisely how I enjoyed my Butterkrust as a young boy. My father would demand, frustrated, that I stop eating like a squirrel (unaware that I was, in fact, pretending to be a rat.) But this type of lifelike, empathic rendering does not require the audience to be familiar with a given experience -- anyone can be captivated by such professional writing. In the stories "Virtual" and "The Wavering Knife," Evenson portrays deepening obsession with a building suspense, and refuses to let the reader off easy. In the excellent opening story, "White Square," an unconventional mystery helps secure one’s attention for the remainder of the book. Even the darkly funny closing vignette, "Garker’s Aestheticals," leaves us with something… unpleasant to dwell on.
There isn’t a story in the collection that doesn’t deserve mention -- Mr. Evenson’s black comedies and blacker tragedies will appeal to anyone with a taste for the weird. The Wavering Knife exists in a world only slightly askew from our own, and readers may be surprised at how easily they fit right in.
The Wavering Knife by Brian Evenson
Fiction Collective Two