A dozen or so people, maybe even more than twenty people, know that I write stories. That’s not important, everyone writes stories or has written stories, I suspect, particularly people visiting this blog. But as a self-described story writer—and maybe you can relate to this—I sometimes get envious of certain writers. Maybe envious isn’t exactly the right word, because I really admire said writers and revel in reading their work, it’s just I wish that somehow I could be writing things at their level of imagination. And it’s not just that I want to equal them talent-wise, it’s that if I could I would steal their stories away as my own. As in (and this is how the barter takes place in my head), I would gladly give up whatever semblance of “promise” my own talents might hold, whatever minor individuality inherent in my own work, wholesale, in trade for their work. I would give up myself for them, the stories are that good.
This is what I’m thinking when I’m reading Rob Walsh’s debut story collection, Troublers.
I don’t know why I think this way. Others have to do this too occasionally, right? And, honestly, I don’t feel this way all too often. I read a lot of good and sometimes great stories, but I’m pretty happy writing my own little weird things—it makes me happy enough, keeps my head and my hands busy. Sometimes I’ll read something great and I’ll think, This is great, but maybe if I wrote it I would write it this way. Or sometimes I’ll read something and it will give me an idea for doing something else altogether, barely related at all. Or most of the time I will just appreciate whatever it is and think, This is good, and that will be that. But when I’m reading something like Troublers, where every sentence feels so perfectly set, where the inventiveness from paragraph to paragraph feels so effortlessly and unassumingly distinct, and where the weirdness vibrating within every story hits that perfect pitch, I wonder if I should just stop writing and reread Troublers again and again while I wait for whatever Rob Walsh will be doing next. (It’s never too late to stop writing, I always tell myself.)
I’ll give one example, because all the stories are examples:
In “A Hole,” for instance, Walsh writes about a hole. His first sentence is, “The woman had spent four shovels and two years digging the hole.” Pretty simple, though undeniably exciting (at least to me). From here we could go anywhere, really. And that’s the beauty if it: we do. We go everywhere. Now I don’t claim to be well read (meaning I shouldn’t really be making these kinds of statements), but I can’t imagine much of a better hole being written into the ground than what Walsh writes here. It’s the quintessential literary hole in the ground.
After finishing the hole, the woman invites some friends over to look at the hole. They muse:
A friend suggested the hole could be used as a bunker. The woman could collect surplus items and attach a lid to the hole’s entrance, such that if danger approached, or if the woman had reason to believe danger would soon be approaching, she could dash into the hole, secure the lid.
A different friend suggested the hole be a trap. When danger approached, the woman could defend herself with offense: conceal the hole with a collapsible layer of sticks and leaves, the friend instructed, then bait yourself on the far side.
With little effort, the hole could be finessed into a crater. If she only reduced the depth, the hole would resemble the impact of a fallen meteor.
Or the lair of an animal! The hole could invite a wild animal, a bear or wolverine, if she added tunnels and made the entrance steep and gaping.
It would need a bridge sooner or later. As with any expanse, people would eventually demand to span it.
Or if she built cells, lined the bottom with hay, rats and bones, it could be a dungeon.
By reaching an agreement with the state, it could be a prison, the first of its kind.
Or if many people died in the hole, after fighting an important battle, then plaques and statues should fill the hole in memoriam.
Had she come across any cultural artifacts while digging? If so, a friend had a relative in archeology who could make an excavation site of the hole.
We all like trees, but underappreciate them. We’ll make it an arboretum for the trees that don’t require light and dedicate ourselves to preservation.
We like birds, underappreciated birds. We’d prefer to study birds nesting in a tree than a tree itself. It will become an aviary for nocturnal species.
Or an homage: we could identify an artist we all admire and incorporate a characteristic of his or her style into the hole.
If she only dug a little deeper, she could probably get away with calling it a chasm.
And if she dug deeper still, for a few more years, it might even be considered an abyss.
The woman had not thought about doing things to the hole. She had wanted the hole for its own sake. A hole appended is no longer a hole but something defiled. The woman told her friends their ideas did not suit her current needs, insofar as they ruined everything.
If only we all could have such friends! (I feel like that last line is inspired by certain journal’s rejection letters.) And so the story continues, turning into something else altogether, all the while maintaining the eponymous hole. I’m not trying to get at anything specific here, only that Troublers is awe-inspiringly hilarious, bizarre, and highly recommended.