Online Edition: Spring 2001

Head

William Tester

Sarabande Books ($19.95)

by Kelly Everding

Whether you're stuck in your own head, trying to get into someone else's head, losing your maidenhead, or aspiring to godhead, William Tester's Head will speak to the particular condition of self-consciousness unique to humanity. In a language that twists the vernacular into a lyrical condensation of image and conveyance, Tester moves fluidly between mind and body as each feeds off the other to create an erotic charge, a sense of grace to be in the world despite its many failings. The characters in this collection of short stories are trying to eke out some semblance of a life, trapped between the secular world and hints of the divine, and the only thing that drives them is primal fear.

In the first story, "Wet," the hungover Nim (a recurring character in many of the stories) and his brother Jim are caught between storms--one coming down on them from the sky and the other coming from their stepfather Lloyd. Forced to push Lloyd's boat through the marshy, alligator-ridden lake as Lloyd unrolls barbed wire (an effort to control and own the drenched and unpredictable Florida land), Jim and Nim are confronted with the refuse of old cars, ghosts, their certain death. As thunder and lightning threaten above them, so does Lloyd threaten them from his boat, until they give in to their fear of being electrocuted and swim to shore, abandoning Lloyd to his fate. "‘He'll kill us,' Jim says. ‘If the lightning quits.' ‘Yeah, but what if it doesn't,' I say." Nim survives his childhood, as well as work, sex, the many break-ups with girlfriends. Throughout it all, he is followed by the presence of God, an offstage character who may or may not take part in his life.

Water or wetness is a pervasive element throughout these stories, just as it is on earth and in our bodies. Water can drown us or grace us by baptism; it shows our fear through sweat and our sorrow through tears; it is the ejaculate, the climax of our passions. All of these bodily manifestations of wetness make an appearance in Head. In "Bad Day," the protagonist is practically drowning in sweat and tears as he sleepwalks through his workday, only to abandon it in the end. "Nervous sweat soaked me, beading up wet on my face and neck. I was sopped with it! I wiped at the sweat, but it wouldn't come off. Why pretend it would?" And just as important as wetness is the electric--for alone or in combination with water it can fire our neurons, enlighten, or kill. In "The Living and the Dead," a nameless drifter floats through Italy, picking up tricks, but unwilling to get too close to people. He awakens from his sleep at the side of the road to a fierce storm. "The lightning hit. Out in front of me, a fence with white posts like a photograph negative netted a field of black hills, and I stumbled until I felt the fence guiding me. Buzzing, its cold wire sang like another mind." Later, "I was ecstatic, but there was no one around I could share this with. My heart singing, hugging the neck of pure terror. . . . I felt lit up inside." These moments of near death and deprivation bring Tester's characters closer to God. "When things like this happened I cursed God. Then immediately, I would see the far lights of a semi. This happened again and again out alone like that, and suddenly, here comes some saving light."

In Head, Tester has tapped primeval motivations that go back to incipient man, and juxtaposed against the quotidian workings of modern society, the terror heightens to an alarming degree. His characters become disaffected and disconnected from people at key moments in their relationships, and when this happens--when they are so deep in their own heads--they fall back on instinct. In "Where the Dark Ended," the protagonist loses himself as he attempts to make love:

She kissed me, yet I couldn't think of our kissing. I wasn't there, all kinds of noise in my head. I could feel my heart. I moved on top of her, sweating--and cupped wetly half into her body, I slid inside, bending myself up in her, but terrored, and I collapsed limp in pure fear, my mind blazing.

". . . What's happened, what is it?" Britta whispered. "You've left."

I didn't say anything.

I didn't kill her and run.

By saying this, of course, there's the scary chance that this is a viable reaction. But between societal law and raw instinct, Tester's characters walk a thin wire that in moments of grace sings with divine intent. These are truly necessary stories filled with sentences that consistently surprise with their rich lyrical force: "She relit herself a snubbed-out Kool"; "Us in all-day sky and dirt, last year's pasture, this year's combed-in early corn." The language is chewy and twisted, shocking us out of our complacent English. Winner of the 1999 Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction and selected by Amy Hempel, Head is well worth searching out--worth the trip out of your own head.

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Spring 2001 Table of Contents