31 Days of Stories 2012, Day 28: “Valley Echo” by D.W. Wilson

May 28, 2012 by · 3 Comments 

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.


3 Responses to “31 Days of Stories 2012, Day 28: “Valley Echo” by D.W. Wilson”
  1. August says:

    I really loved this book, for a lot of reasons. Even though I grew up in a smaller, and even more isolated, region than where most of this book takes place, it’s the most accurate representation of the kind of community I spent the first twenty years of my life in that I’ve ever seen in print. Blew me away how well he captured the violence and bravado — and more importantly, the overwhelming doubt and self-loathing and insecurity — of small town masculinity.

  2. Shelley says:

    Worklit isn’t Chicklit?

  3. Alex says:

    Shelley: I was commenting on a particular type of work that has gone missing in fiction in that review. Here’s the context (from the start of that review):

    From George Orwell to Ian McEwan and, most recently, Alain de Botton there is a tradition of taking novelists to task for failing to represent the world of daily toil. “If you look for the working classes in fiction,” Orwell wrote in 1939, “all you find is a hole.” This turning away from documentary or social realism for the escapist pastures of postmodern “magic” realism or historical romance, something which has become even more pronounced in our own time, has both a gender and a class dimension to it. What has gone missing from the literature of “work” is traditional man’s work: the sort of hard physical labour of “real” jobs involving skilled trades or heavy industry. Thus conceived, Work Lit is Guy Lit, the other side of Chick Lit (whose protagonists do have jobs, though they don’t always take them very seriously). Work Lit is also Prole Lit, as manual labour is understood to be undesirable employment: demanding, dangerous, degrading, and poorly paid. The underclass stuck in this grind usually don’t have much in the way of education, and are often associated with criminality.

    If we look at the decline in social realist novels as a historic phenomenon it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Reports of the gradual extinction of traditional, male, blue-collar lifeways have not been exaggerated, and so it’s only natural to find this world less represented in our fiction.