Vinnie Wilhelm, In the Absence of Predators

Publisher: Rescue Press

2011, 156 pages, paperback, $14

philadelphia author and Iowa Workshop graduate Vinnie Wilhelm’s five-story debut collection is dazzling in its range and satisfying in its consistency of voice. This generous handful of stories takes risks, offering plot twists that might be outlandish under the direction of a less adept writer. In two of the longest stories in the collection, “The Crying of the Gulls” and “Fauntleroy’s Ghost,” Wilhelm seems to delight in crafting plots that toy with the expectations of the reader. These deft reversals dovetail ironically with the first story of the collection, “White Dog,” a folkloric short-short in which a caballero tells of the symbolic premonitions of his dreams. Starting his collection with this tale is a knowing wink on the part of the author, who aims to undercut our sense of familiarity and realism with his wild diversions of plot. Ogilvie, protagonist of “The Crying of the Gulls,” finds himself dealing with the unsettling knowledge that he has witnessed a ghost. Though, perhaps, this pales in comparison to our realization that Ogilvie, a drifter and short-order cook, winds up married to Hollywood royalty, hob-knobbing at the Cannes Film Festival. Likewise, “Fauntleroy’s Ghost” offers up a story within a story that tells a tale of espionage and betrayal in which the appearances of even close friends are deceiving, all while managing to convey a riveting history of communism and the life of Trotsky. These are not predictable stories.

“Cruelty to Animals,” the midpoint of the collection, serves as a sort of modern and brutal nod to
Cheever, featuring a previously successful, upper-middle class New York financier recalling his descent into alcoholism and madness at his inability to navigate the so-called ‘good life.’ Like each of the five stories, this one uses a motif of animals. This collection offers up dogs, cats, chinchillas, and deer, using beasts as perfectly as it uses locales, wandering from Mexico to the Great Plains, from L.A. to New York, Cuba to Russia, Ohio to New England. As with the prey animals he uses as a framework, Wilhelm makes sure to milk his settings of all the tone they afford. His characters are at once both predator and prey, living in cutthroat environments in which they can morph from one into the other without the time or control necessary to understand the shift. This is, at base, the essence of good story telling.

In the final and title story, Wilhelm gives readers just a taste of sentimentality, unapparent elsewhere in the book. “In the Absence of Predators” is comprised of a structure at once more traditional than his previous four works but also more free to experiment with narrative. The protagonist hits and kills a deer while driving through a blizzard in New England and finds an eerie diner, deserted but for three male customers and the restaurateur. In turn, each man tells the story of the time he has borne witness to the death of a deer, philosophizing about life and death while still rooted in the stark beauty of Wilhelm’s concrete details. Strange and beautiful things are revealed about each man, about the nature of life, love, murder, and death. Like the rest of the collection, this story is not without a surprising twist of plot, though it is much more subtle and arguably more affecting than in the previous tales.

In the final line of “White Dog,” Wilhelm writes, “To know the future is at once a great and terrible thing.” His stories ponder the nature of fate and of premonition, of people who end up in a place foreign and unplanned and yet to which they realize they have been driven their whole lives. To read In The Absence of Predators is to glimpse Wilhelm’s literary future and to know it is much more likely to be great than terrible.

—Jaime Pickett