July 2010

Guy Cunningham

fiction

Kicking In: Stories by Richard Wirick

Author (and Bookslut contributor) Richard Wirick’s Kicking In is a brutal read. Its thirteen brief stories -- most only around ten pages long -- depict a woman being burned alive, a man being gored by a deer, a group of Mexican truckers who electrocute each other for sport, some out-of-control businessmen slaughtering sea creatures in Thailand, an Amish man partially paralyzed after falling off a ladder, a battlefield surgical procedure in Somalia, and countless other examples of cruelty and suffering. Then there are the drugs -- OxyContin, cocaine, and a synthetic opioid named Dilaudid, to name a few. In many ways these stories -- which all play off each other without sharing common settings or characters -- are about the tension between pain (often caused by violence) and numbness (often abetted by narcotics).

Unlike, say, the films of Quentin Tarantino, however, these tales never revel in violence. Instead, Wirick focuses on what suffering does to people. In “Self-Portrait with Wounded Eye,” for example, pain leads to maturity, as the injuries sustained in an assault lead the story’s youthful narrator to reflect on both the impermanence of things and the decay of his New York City neighborhood:

If anything, I awakened to the mutability but odd finality of appearances. Just like the crumbling, constantly reconstituted city around me, my face was changing daily: My eyes got clearer and receded; little frostlike filaments of dried blood dropped away, falling down into my lap like dandruff. The flimsiness of 1970s Yorkville mirrored my face’s changes. It was a proliferation of mixing images, all startling but all intangible.

His disfigurement has caused him to see the world differently. It’s not hard to see this as Wirick’s design -- by confronting readers with scenes of suffering and brutality, he hopes to make them see things differently, too.

The book kicks off with “Hardin Street,” one of the most disturbing pieces of writing I’ve come across in quite a while. This story’s narrator is a lawyer called on to defend two mechanics named Bobby and Tim, who are accused of burning a woman in a kiln. They are wholly unrepentant, brushing aside the narrator’s desire to know whether or not the act was intentional: “We turned the thing off, man,” one of them says. “What do you want? We turned it off when she started to scream.”

From the beginning, the lawyer senses he is dealing with unsavory men. But the full extent of their cruelty is something he only grasps when forced to look at its results:

Looking up, I could see the light was on in the nearest kiln, the one she had been in. It was a low, ghastly kind of cold light, the kind that comes from fluorescent bulbs. I went up to the window and looked in. There were handprints along the wall that I thought had been made from her touching some kind of paint. It took a second and some of the smell coming through the window crack before I knew they were made out of her skin, her actual flesh.

Here, though suffering doesn’t lead to personal growth. Instead, it brings to fore a numbness that has been building in the narrator throughout the day, brought on by a failed love affair, the pressures of his job, and “other deeper things: the traffic, the static on the radio…” The sight of those handprints has thrown the lawyer's entire life into stark relief -- and the awfulness of his life (and of Bobby and Tim’s actions) leaves him paralyzed.

Another California story -- “The House in Beverly Hills Where Faulkner Lived” -- tells of a different kind of numbness, one brought on by self-indulgence and political disengagement. Here, a group of yuppie lawyers in 1988 Beverly Hills are throwing a cocaine-fueled housewarming party. It is the most politically explicit work in the book, as the lawyers -- many of whom were once artists and writers -- are living in the shadow of “the Reagan revolution that was transfiguring so many of them from their liberal pedigrees to a brazen, newly selfish unknown.”

While most of Kicking In focuses on down-and-out characters -- like the mugging victim of “Self-Portrait with Wounded Eye” -- these people are ahead in life. Their passivity -- their inability to live up to their artistic ideals -- is brought on by choice. The story offers the possibility to connect with larger political issues. Unfortunately, when one budding Reaganite declares: “Societies that succeed, they’re driven by it. By self-interest, by… individual… selfishness,” and then follows it by literally toasting “selfishness,” he comes off as a buffoon, not monster. We are in the realm of caricature, and the story suffers as a result.

This is a rare misstep though. Wirick fares far better with “Road Out of Babylon,” which centers on a battlefield operation in Somalia. Its narrator, a US soldier, is forced to comfort a comrade who has a rocket-propelled grenade lodged in his abdomen. He describes his efforts by saying:

He was looking for encouragement, for a vote on his life. Not a vote, but a kind of passion, something he almost wanted to hear me shout. All the turd jokes, all the laughing -- it was like he was here with his family. All our barking and rolling was just monotonous family talking, assuring him he’d go on living in the world he’s always known

This transcends cliché precisely because Wirick has shown us exactly how dire the stakes are. We see how much the wounded soldier is suffering, and that elevates the Hollywood conceit of soldiers as “family” into something profound. It is the finest moment of the book, and it illustrates well the deep sympathy Wirick feels for most of his characters. This sympathy is what keeps the brutality of Kicking In from overwhelming the reader, and it is the collection’s greatest strength.

Kicking In: Stories by Richard Wirick
Soft Skull Press
ISBN: 1593762801
240 Pages