31 Days of Stories 2012, Day 28: “Valley Echo” by D.W. Wilson
From Once You Break a Knuckle
In his Quill & Quire review of Matt Lennox’s novel, The Carpenter, Alex Good wrote, “WorkLit is GuyLit, the other side of ChickLit. WorkLit is also ProleLit, as manual labour is understood to be undesirable: demanding, dangerous, and poorly paid.” D.W. Wilson writes WorkLit, which is also GuyLit, which is also ProleLit. Wilson’s characters work with their hands, they drink and curse and fight, but they also yearn in a way that admits a kind of vulnerability that often goes overlooked in commentary about this kind of macho, tough-guy fiction.
The central character in “Valley Echo” is called Winch. His proper name is Winston, so named by his mother “because it evoked hints of rubbled London and because she remembered her old man, a gunned-down naval aviator who she eventually discovered had raped her mother.” From the start, Winch is inextricably associated with violence. His nickname results from his father’s brainstorm as he builds a tree fort for his son: “Conner and the boy fashioned a pulley system around the tree’s branches, and as his son helped him heave on a rope to hoist the base, the nickname came to him: Winch.” Wilson’s story circles around the relationship between Winch and his father, Conner, and touches uncomfortably on themes of violence and sexual jealousy.
If Winch’s nickname refers specifically to the device used to haul wood for building the tree fort, it also refers to the Winchester rifle owned by Conner’s buddy, Sampson, a rifle that is used in an act of aggression briefly and elliptically glimpsed by Winch from a boat on the water, with his father and Sampson facing off on the shore: “Both men had changed positions: his dad had his back to the water now, shoulders rolled down and head hunched and fists at his side. Sampson had the .308 levelled at his dad’s chest. From that range it’d blow a man’s heart clear out.” Although the specific nature of the dispute between Conner and Sampson remains obscure, it is certainly not accidental that Wilson indicates the rifle fired at close range could blow a man’s heart out. It is finally the heart that these men respond most strongly to.
“Valley Echo” is all about the tensions that erupt around masculine relationships: fathers and sons, friends and rivals. The story’s central conflict involves sexual jealousy between Conner and Winch over Miss Hawk, Winch’s high school shop teacher, with whom Conner has previously had an affair. Much of the masculine code in the story involves proclaiming oneself in protection of, or in opposition to, women: Winch stands up for a girl he is seeing when she is threatened by a punk at the local hot springs, and he asserts himself in the face of his father’s antipathetic reaction to his teacher. Winch punches Conner when the latter insults Miss Hawk, an action that results in a violent response from the older man: “His dad fell upon him, limbs methodical. Winch batted an arm aside, absorbed a half blow with his ribs, snugged his elbow over it. He smelled beer and deodorant and cigarettes, and Winch had never known his dad to smoke.”
Conner knows only violence as a reaction to a situation of conflict, although Winch’s grandfather manages to defuse the situation:
His gramps appeared at the front porch, barked: put him down. Winch stared at his dad whose fist gyrated in the air and whose forearm pinned him against the tree.
–Nup, his dad said, and lowered him. The fist relaxed, unfurled. He brushed Winch’s shoulder, as if to remove dirt. –I won’t be that guy.
In many ways, Conner’s entire trajectory in the story involves an attempt not to “be that guy”; his great realization is that he was never as good a father to Winch as Winch’s gramps was. “Muh dad was yer dad,” Conner says to his son. “I didn’t do as good as him. He got it right or sompthen.”
Wilson’s characters are constantly struggling against their situation in an attempt to get it right. The final image in the story has Winch imagining himself breaking free of the shackles that bind him to the ground and taking off “in a contraption he’d hand-built to carry him from the earth.” It is this strong desire for transcendence that elevates the characters from their circumstances and provides them their greatest strength and dignity.