Troubled people 

April Wilder touches a nerve with Accident

I want to take the characters in April Wilder's This Is Not an Accident by the shoulders, shake them and tell them to get a grip. That is to say, if you're feeling short-tempered with everyone else's shortcomings and your own, maybe that's not the best time to start this book. The University of Montana alumna's collection of short stories and a novella tends to feature people who, in one way or another, keep causing problems for themselves.

In the first story, for instance, we meet Kat, who keeps missing her turn and compulsively driving 200 miles. "It was hard to say when she fully understood she was headed back to Iowa City," writes Wilder. "Maybe at the Wisconsin-Iowa border. Definitely by Verona she knew. Absolutely by Dodgeville." In "Me Me Me," a woman hangs out with her recovering alcoholic sister, who adopts a troublemaking daughter "with teenage pregnancy written all over her."

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  • This Is Not an Accident April Wilderhardcover, Viking224 pages, $26.95

In "You're That Guy," This Is Not An Accident's novella, we meet Eckhart, who's depressed after his father's death and independently wealthy, and so has nothing better to do than get high while house-sitting for a deployed Marine. He's rescued by his friends, Russ and Jackie, and taken to Salt Lake City (which also happens to be where Wilder lives in real life). Russ and Jackie are poets but still manage to be relatively cheerful, well-adjusted people; we don't learn a whole lot about their inner workings, perhaps because they'd be boring. Eckhart's father, a brilliant mathematician, chose to spent the last 15 years of his life wandering around San Francisco homeless. Eckhart seems destined for a similarly shiftless future.

Wilder tells stories about people you and I know, about people we might be ourselves. It's true that there isn't always a rainbow at the end or magic cure-all; screw-ups often keep being screwed up. That's just not very satisfying or helpful. Wilder's messy people and their helplessness touches a nerve that I'd rather it not.

I kept getting annoyed and putting this book down, but picking it back up again for Wilder's curious syntax choices and dreamlike descriptions. She uses some traditional storytelling devices but then gets unconventional: After describing a dog jumping out of a window, the next page and a half are almost all blank except for random exclamation points. It certainly conveys a sense of alarm.

Wilder often writes like people really talk, teasing out the funny ways we phrase things"—and curls like from a curling iron," as she describes an Airedale dog. She likes to play with word repetition and multiple meanings, too—"in the wake (following the wake) of his father's death..."

In "You're That Guy," the imagery is often surprising and minimalist. We don't know what Eckhart looks like, or really anyone else except the brown-haired and radiant Jackie, whom Eckhart has a crush on. The color red splashes worryingly throughout the narrative, from bloody mosquitoes spattering like "machine-gun fire" against a windshield to the "red velvet insides" of a dog decapitated in a traffic accident.

Lest this all seem too dark, there are moments of levity, too—a wry voice that notes seemingly incongruous moments. On the drive to Salt Lake, Russ and Eckhart turn up Christian metal, because it's the only radio station coming in clearly. A bride sits alone outside the Mormon Temple eating McDonald's. And after Eckhart's father's funeral, his sister and Russ "were doing shots with an honest-to-God dwarf named Kermit and anyone could see how that was going to end, so Eckhart took off before he saw anything that would complicate his ability to remember that week in a particular way."

Wilder's stories have a begrudging determination I can't help but admire, too. Eckhart realizes at one point that, "...after hours sucking on the barrel of a gun you now know you will never shoot, the chair you will not kick out, the hose you won't suck—you learn that you are not suicidal, that this switch is not in you, that instead apparently you're going to stand there and take whatever comes." Much as it drives me crazy, I can't help but admit this is exactly how weird life really is.

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