Fluid structures and tensely contained emotion bulk large in this third collection from the PEN/Faulkner Award winner (Fever, 1989; Philadelphia Fire, 1990; etc.).
The method in these ten stories is quickly established in the opener, “Weight,” an ironically affectionate paean to its unnamed narrator’s frail, cancer-ridden mother, whose stoical shouldering of her own and others’ burdens is metaphorically compared to weight-lifting—as is the narrator’s own act of helping carry the coffin. In the similar “Are Dreams Faster Than the Speed of Light,” a man dying of a lingering neurological disease plans the mercy killing of his equally moribund elderly father, a VA hospital patient. But life perversely reasserts itself (“No opportunity, after all, to play God”). The best of the stories are charged with deep feeling, impressive verbal skill, and a salutary fatalism that honors, as it scrutinizes, its characters’ ability to take the blows rained down on them, and to keep on truckin’. And their range is often extraordinary: from a pro basketball player’s mid-game collapse to a rich remembrance of a beloved grandfather’s burial (“Who Weeps When One of Us Goes Down Blues”), or the wrenching tale (“What We Cannot Speak of We Must Pass Over in Silence”) of a middle-aged bachelor’s casual friendship with the father of a lifer imprisoned in Arizona, to whom the narrator brings the news of the death of the prisoner’s father. Wideman stumbles in free-form tales evoking eminent black icons (“Fanon,” “The Silence of Thelonious Monk”). But he achieves a tour de force in the luminous “Sightings,” whose itinerant academic narrator meditates to stunning effect on the suicide of two very different friends and colleagues—and endures the disturbingly monitory experience of “my dead greeting me, testing me, reminding me that there won’t be another time.”
A rich display of the varied skills of one of our finest writers.