Two deeply disappointing, pallid novellas, identified as fictionalized autobiography, by the author of the story collection Can You Get There from Here? (1994). Both are set in small-town east Texas in the 1950s. “Seven Days Working” describes its adolescent narrator’s reaction to the task set for him by his phlegmatic father: to clear 70 acres of pastureland choked by soil-killing, useless mesquite trees—on his own, in a week’s time. Donnie, 14, stoically accepts this burden, hoping to prove his worth. But his labors provide only a framework on which Watt hangs a loose assortment of the boy’s memories: of his father’s undistinguished career in the oil business, of growing up “in a house of distrust, of judgment, a house imbued with the fear of failure”; of strained relations with his distant father and his fundamentalist mother, casual racism, glimmerings of sexuality, grieving the death of a beloved dog—it’s all generic and predictable, and it slows this already meditative story to a crawl. The title novella, developed from a briefly mentioned incident in its companion story, recounts the consequences of a vicious “game” of “nigger knockin‘” played by a carful of white youths—who accidentally kill the black pedestrian they intend only to harass. Watt examines this act from the viewpoints of 12-old Damon, the contemplative “preacher’s boy” who unwillingly participates in it, and of Damon’s father, a forgotten-man minister who (quite unbelievably) reasons that the excitement created by the murder will restore his reputation, once the news media have “spotlighted [him] as the voice of reason, a moderate leader in a red-neck, racist town.” Then Wallace learns the full truth from Damon, and Watt rushes their story to its inconclusive—and unearned—conclusion. A bad miscalculation by a writer who’s surely better than this. Watt is a capable stylist, but he needs a subject.