|Aug/Sep 1998 Book Reviews|
Cambridge Book Review Press, 1997, 168pp
Bob Wake's first volume of short fiction is a series of interconnected short stories set in the slightly off-kilter world of small-town Wisconsin. It isn't necessary to know that state to enjoy the book, but I am certain that my own intimate familiarity with the equally strange and often surreal landscape of rural Alaska added to my enjoyment!
The ten stories that make up Caffeine are as varied as a demanding reader could hope for: a pair of miniature coming-of-age stories, a twisted road-buddy tale, a meandering psychological rumination, and more. The best pieces— the title story, "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Sarah Randall", and "Saukfield"— are superficially disparate, but share a pleasant mix of authentic dialogue built on a solid psychological foundation:
"His reasoning was this—" the professor continued. "Our visual perception of the world is nothing but a reflected image upon the retina. The retina is a flat surface."
Sara thought: Not unlike your head, oh Wise one.
"Excuse me professor," she said. "I have to find the bathroom."
Sarah liked using exit lines that were both effective and factual. When she arrived at the bathroom, however, the door was locked and she could hear a man and a woman furiously debating Plato's "The Allegory of the Cave." Shadows! Shadows! We live in a world of shadows! Sarah assumed the argument was a foreplay ritual and that the combatants would finish by making curved love in a bathtub.
Wake's Wisconsin is inhabited by characters like Sarah Randall who, along with other characters and themes, will keep emerging in different morphed shapes throughout the book. These are people who change by virtue of being trapped in their proscribed mental and/or geographical landscapes.
In another exquisite moment whose meaning and circumstance was all too familiar to me, the young Neal Bishop, at that time also an aspiring author, is having a beer-soaked conversation with a friend who has returned to live in his small home-town:
"Sometimes you can be a real dope, Neal," said Klausner.
"Granted. But what's your point to the Sarah Randall story?"
"No point," he said. But after a moment he added, "I think Oliver Hawkins is a great writer because he accepts the banality of this town."
"Like Sarah Randall accepted the banality of fucking you?"
"Can you get off Sarah Randall please?"
"I was never on Sarah Randall, Klausner, and I don't think you were either."
At the end of the volume he will emerge in the title story as a survivor, a confused, alcoholic disc jockey who pursues— sometimes on-air— a perverse relationship with his therapist:
"Do you think maybe I was slapped around a lot as a kid?" he enjoyed asking her.
His therapist, Carlotta Santiago, had the same answer for most of the thousand-and-one inane questions he pitched to her during her Naked Breakfast appearances— "Neal, how would I know the answer to that?"
Of course Carlotta was beautiful and Neal was in love with her. The question in his mind was always: is it transference or am I just glad to see her?
This kind of humorous exchange laced with a psychological explanation (not to mention the subtle Freudian play on a juvenile joke) can be found throughout this volume, despite the fact that the characters move and grow— or don't grow— in often wholly unexpected ways.
Bob Wake shows himself to be a solid, controlled writer… sometimes too controlled. Or controlling. While Neal Bishop's final appearance makes his story the best in the book, the equally interesting and enigmatic Sarah Randall is done a disservice in the meandering "Fatal Harmony" narrated by her psychologist and lover. The story is at once troublingly unclear and authorially burdened. Even the sometimes brilliant wordplay and the sections printed from Sarah's manuscripts (which, incidentally, would have served their purpose without the framing of the story itself) are not enough to keep the reader from feeling keenly disappointed. There are a few other small blemishes of this sort, instances when Wake doesn't seem confident in letting the reader do his share of the work, as if he is afraid to let go of the reins that much.
But lapses like this aren't serious and are even expected in a first book of this breadth. Almost all of these stories are individually worth the cover price. The range shown by Bob Wake in creating this series of interconnected, readable stories that stand well on their own is a considerable accomplishment. Reading Caffeine and Other Stories is like being a kid again and reaching into a grab bag at a rich friend's birthday party: you can't know what you are going to get, but you can be sure it's going to be damn good.