Vinnie Wilhelm, In the Absence of Predators, Rescue Press, 2011

Reviewed by Nate Brown

[Review Guidelines]

Some books are poor candidates for criticism because they're so terrible or silly or blunt that ancillary conversation about them seems boorish, unnecessary, maybe even cruel. Others titles resist criticism because a reviewer would do better to hand someone the book and say "read it" than they would spend a few hundred words proving that their praise isn't half as artful or entertaining as the work at hand. Vinnie Wilhelm's debut story collection, In the Absence of Predators, is decidedly the latter sort of book.
     The joy of reading the collection comes partly from Wilhelm's characters themselves. They are a strange and deluded and self-important and typically damaged bunch. They speak in ridiculous idioms. They crack flat jokes and clever jokes and jokes that only they find funny. They frequently feel terrible for themselves and, less frequently, for others. They lie to one another elaborately. They're nearly always running away from something. With the exception of booze and sex, rarely are they're running toward something they seem to legitimately desire. All of which is good raw material for the kind of bounding narratives that Wilhelm writes. But a handful of oddball characters is almost certainly not enough to create a great book.
     The real alchemy here doesn't reside in the narrative details or in the interior lives of Wilhelm's beaten, addicted, lonely cast of nutcases (entertaining as they are). The real spark here, the thing that makes this book so damned fun is Wilhelm's crackling prose. Let's be clear here: Wilhelm's sentences are about as subtle as a punch in the teeth, but they're never clownish and Wilhelm exercises enough restraint to keep things plausible. As with a Barry Hannah story, one can hardly imagine one of these stories stripped of its diction and regional inflection. In that way, the manner in which Wilhelm tells these stories is as important as the content of the stories themselves.
     To wit: the first page of Wilhelm's "The Crying of the Gulls" begins as an alcoholic drifter type named Ogilvie drives into Sheridan, Wyoming "on a hunch." The way Wilhelm tells it, "He'd been driving west the way some people leap screaming from bridges and high windows. This of course is an American tradition." Wilhelm's treading the familiar ground of American wanderlust, sure, but he's also setting the terms for this story and, in some ways, for the entire collection. In a Vinnie Wilhelm story, nobody's just road-tripping out west. They're participating in something grander and darker than that. In a Vinnie Wilhelm story, nobody sees a neon bar sign and thinks, "Ah, a bar. Great." Like the well-meaning wannabe screenwriter Stucky, the protagonist of "Fauntleroy's Ghost," they see that bar sign and think, "A neon cocktail glass, with its neon olive and neon stir, is a symbol that speaks the Esperanto of despair [...]."
     Of course, subtlety is often artful, lovely, and powerful, as writers like William Maxwell and Alice Munro have proven time and again. But a Maxwell or a Munro story isn't likely to elicit a belly laugh, and it's a sure thing that Munro or Maxwell couldn't creep a reader out in quite the same way that Wilhelm's "Cruelty to Animals" can.
     In fact, it'd be hard to overstate the loveliness and creepiness of the title story, "In the Absence of Predators," the final piece in the collection. It's a simple story—a few men are holed up in a diner during a blizzard and they shoot the shit and smoke and trade stories about their various encounters with, of all things, deer. Suffice it to say that the last lines of this book are pitch perfect, that they resonate, and that I'd like to get my hunting license this fall.