Wasp Box by Jason Ockert
Jason Ockert's first novel is strangely magnificent. Deep down, Wasp Box is a love story: A soldier searches for a way to come home to his sweetheart, a man attempts to be a better father to his son, a quiet boy and an odd girl find companionship in each other and an old man struggles to cope without his deceased wife. But it's also a story filled with a quiet, lurking dread. It touches on the fear that lives inside all of us, a fear that literally surfaces when a soldier returned from war births a swarm of parasitic wasps that have been nesting in his brain, feeding on his insides. Are you cringing yet? Good. Those are just the first two pages.
The novel, which continues on to follow the story of an alcoholic, estranged father trying to reconnect with his son and his son's half brother on the mediocre, upstate New York vineyard where he lives while they face an invisible battle with parasitic wasps, does not immediately bring to mind the word "poetic." And yet, despite the absurdity of the story itself, there are moments that sing with Ockert's fascinating turns of phrase and beautiful descriptions.
The novel resides in that moment between the mundanity of everyday life and the grotesque possibility of what could happen. What should be an average summer spent battling heat and boredom becomes instead a battle against the wasps and the zombie-like monsters they create by devouring the brains of the living humans and animals they incubate inside of. Meanwhile, two once-close brothers grow apart and are forced to grow up in unusual circumstances, a man's personal demons multiply and almost kill him, a girl struggles to come to terms with the death of her grandmother, a cruel contractor involves his summer employee in a twisted side project, and the owners of a vineyard struggle with the decision to raze the land and start over. It's a lot of material to tackle, a delicate line to balance between the out-of-place monsters and the less fantastic struggles the characters face, but Ockert -- who has already established himself as an accomplished writer with his award-winning short stories -- manages it gracefully. His story may live in the realm of the absurd, but his characters still very much live within the confines of the real world. He writes of Nolan, the alcoholic father:
Casting his eyes to the window, the man notices that it is much darker outside than it was when he entered. He's not sure how this happened, how he overlooked such a dramatic change in light. The wind billows in the sheer curtains. A sudden crush of sadness collapses upon him.
Transformation of the self, a major theme throughout the book, is made shockingly literal as the characters deal with the chaos and destruction caused by the wasps. That the majority of the characters are completely ignorant of the wasps' role in said wreckage only serves to further the idea of human relationships as tenuous and difficult, or even impossible, to rebuild.
Once the wasps of the novel are discovered, Ockert begins his chapters with scientifically detailed descriptions of the real-life versions of those insects. As those descriptions become increasingly disturbing, and as the novel progresses into madness, it becomes difficult to read through it without feeling the need to scratch every inch of yourself, or to dig deep inside your ear to make sure no unwanted creatures have made their way inside. But even as the storyline crashes through the limits of reality and ventures into completely bizarre territory, it's also safe to say that readers will easily identify with at least one of the misfit characters and even find themselves lost in Ockert's skillfully crafted imagery:
With his eyes pinched shut, the soldier cannot see what's been eating him up inside push past his pliable lips and perch momentarily there before taking flight. The wasps are like wicked words -- the soldier's confession -- made manifest. They rise away and whisper to the moon.
It's made clear from the start that the story won't end well, and it becomes a slow agony, waiting for the thing you know will happen, that certainty settling inside you as surely as the killer wasps would. What you don't know can kill you. But if Ockert's the one doing the killing, it may just be worth the ride.
Wasp Box by Jason Ockert