The Wavering Knife by Brian Evenson
(Fiction Collective Two) $13.95

Brian Evenson's sixth book of stories, like his earlier work, draws the reader into a particularly American mix of violence, hometowns, and religion. A little girl re-creates her mother's suicide scene, fake blood and all, in order to rouse her alcoholic father from his emotional coldness. A man shoots his lover point-blank, fails to kill him, and when the injured man returns from the hospital, the shooter pretends the incident never occurred and the awful relationship, full of suppression, hobbles along as ever. A doubting, pained Christian digs up the body of a church prophet and tries to reanimate the thing with wires and electricity in his garage, melting his extension cord and frying the corpse.

These plot lines are hyperbolic, but Evenson's stories at large go in a satisfyingly complex direction. He fancies characters with blunt, hilarious American male names like "Kohke," "Horst," "Verl," and "Burl," which seem to suggest that men's identities or lives are short, stubby, inept things. These characters accumulate along with towns, roadside bars, invalids cooped up in apartment houses, and secret brotherhoods that dole out Kafkaesque physical punishments. This imagery assembles to evoke a unique sea of gothic.

The characters have limited cultural parameters, whether they are Bible belters or academics or simply sociopathic. As they come up against our massively broken culture and all of life's unfairness, their agitation seems understandable, and the typical fleeting violent wishes we all recognize, in Evenson's world, become reality. The bloodfests that sometimes ensue are metaphoric as miniature Francis Bacons, each layering on a bit more of the bloody, complex stink of life.

Journals like the Southern Review and Conjunctions have published Evenson's short stories, but in my fantasy trajectory of his publishing career, he would appear--easily, and without resistance from prissy, philistine editors--in Redbook or Field & Stream, so some of the communities Evenson depicts might see their culture and concerns rendered through his apt and tortured eyes.

Years back, Evenson was more or less ejected from a teaching post at Brigham Young University in Utah, his home state, because, according to the school's administration, his writing was too dark, too implicitly critical of the church. He refused to revise or rescind his work. And he once remarked in an interview that the Mormon Church and its community overemphasizes the positive, happy side of life to such an extreme degree that it creates a space "where evil can occur unimpeded." Though reviewers have described his philosophic turns regarding existence and dissolution, I think Evenson's work focuses best if readers keep in mind that his vision is shaped by the specter of that enforced, suppurating "happy space."

In The Wavering Knife, as in most of Evenson's fiction, "evil" swims up eagerly to muddy any notion of "pure" or "good." In "Müller," a character touches all the teeth in the back of his sick, choking grandfather's mouth: "The bridge came free after Müller pried it back and forth a mere twenty minutes... he did not let his wife stop him...." Later, Müller considers: "His grandfather liked him... and now he had stolen his teeth. There had always been teeth, he thought. His whole life, nothing but teeth... Other teeth: Once while riding his bicycle he had seen a dog's head hit by the fender of a car, its teeth spattering out and scattering down the road... the lover his wife did not know he was seeing, her teeth all at angles, the jagged bit of them against his flesh."

The prose is thuddingly sad and inexplicably, weirdly comic, full of Evenson's allegiance to the unpleasant, the true. His tales seem to fill up existential space alongside that doctrinaire Positive in which believers are supposed to live with flowing grace. The fiction is repulsive but more "moral" than anything that comes out of Brett Ellis or A. M. Homes, and Evenson works hard to recover the split-off grotesques that rightfully and troublingly belong to us, too.

In "Promisekeepers," a member of a Christian men's group confesses to his brothers that he's a crossdresser, and the result is hilarious. Evenson is unique--no one else these days can write such good Christian dialogue about silk underwear, homosexual panic, and the police.