Vinnie Wilhelm's “Fautleroy’s Ghost,” included in his short story collection In the Absence of Predators, first appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review. I remember reading it and feeling great affection for a writer who could encompass an empathetic account of the doomed revolutionary faith of both Leon Trotsky and Patrice Lumumba within a Hollywood spoof. Ben Stuckey leaves his leaky living room in Seattle to pitch his script for a bio-pic of Trotsky:
But what is Trotsky’s story in the end? He reclines on the kitchen floor, covered like history in blood. . . . He has lived and now died in the cause of rigid, high-flown ideals, but his path has been blocked at every turn by human weakness and chicanery. . . . What is the society of man, after all, but a vast conspiracy against the pure of heart?
A jaded producer leans across his card table desk after the pitch and says, “You don't get out to the movies very often, do you, Ben?” Stuckey reconnects with an old friend and known operator, Sam Raskin, gets played by him as he has many times before, and goes home. Think Woody Allen banging his LA rental car around in Annie Hall. A moment of particular brilliance involves a secret novel manuscript in which a mercenary spook turns movie director in order to hide video footage that exposes the covered-up circumstances of Lumumba’s assassination. Somehow Wilhelm manages to defamiliarize terrain we think we know. The story hints at more noir than it delivers, but with imaginative brio.
Several of the other tales involve protagonists who have arrived at some life impasse and take to the road and/or the bottle. Characters are presented with an ironic distance that underscores an alienation, the source of which may or may not be clear: femme fatales, repressed suburban wives, wizened Wyoming holdouts. There is some gratuitous cruelty towards animals (cat and chinchilla), which I found difficult to square with the deceptive facileness of tone. In the story “Cruelty towards Animals,” we are in Cheever country. The unhappy booze-addled suburban narrator is on the verge of carrying out a copycat of the chinchilla’s fate with the family dog when his six-year-old daughter pulls him back from the brink: “‘Daddy,’ she asked, ‘what are you doing?’” It opens up a moment of real connection for both reader and characters.
The title story, “In the Absence of Predators,” fulfills the expectations with which I opened this collection. It, too, begins with a man on the run. In a blinding blizzard, the narrator totals his car when he hits and kills a doe. Trudging to the Twin Pines Diner, he encounters three other stranded travelers whom he initially describes as types: prep-school runaway, sun-tanned patrician, a grizzled man who exudes hidden scars, and the counter man. “Like many . . . veterans of restaurant work, he projects a certain world weariness, a sense of sadness and wisdom.” These are people with no way out—stuck in the situation, stuck with each other. The narrator recounts the collision with the deer:
“She died,” I say.
“They usually do,” Lewis Fountain [the preppy] interjects. . . . “Ninety percent of all collisions with an automobile are fatal for deer. . . . Strange animals,” he says.
“Yes,” Martin [the rough character] agrees. . . . He pauses, and something about the way he does so gathers the room’s energy around him. When he begins again, his voice is measured, its cadence nice and slow. . . .
I am a drifter. I have no home.
Against expectation, the men open themselves to intimacy and vulnerability, each telling a story with the common threads of deer and death. The cumulative effect is a sense of searing loss and very male loneliness that hides under layers of experience and comes close to the beauty the narrator has described in the frozen terror of the doe.
The story collection builds in strength, ending with “In the Absence of Predators.” In the moments when Wilhelm gives up some of his ironic stance, the prose stops working too hard, and his restless vision begins to work towards letting the reader close to his characters. And I’d love to see him take the Lumumba story and run with it. I see it as a screenplay. Maybe Steven Soderbergh could direct.