For years, I was totally incompetent when it came to shopping for a wife. I desperately wanted a long-term relationship and yet I repeatedly dated women who had no interest in a committed relationship or at least not in one with me. These women and I were often ill-matched and our dates tended to end in long silences over lukewarm food as the conversations petered out. This was in the days before eHarmony.com.
My particular method of sabotaging relationships was to find a woman that was about to move away from Boulder and begin romancing her. As soon as I heard the words, "my lease is up," or "I've got a job offer in California," or "I head off to Georgia for graduate school in three weeks" I was there with flowers and reservations at the best restaurants in Boulder and Denver.
There was the Bulgarian who was about to move back to her home country. That relationship came to an end on the ski slopes of Copper Mountain when out of the blue she said "you will take me to rodeo this afternoon." This was not an Eastern European double entendre for "hey cowboy, wanna get lucky?" She literally wanted to stop skiing at lunch time so we could drive all the way back to Denver in a snowstorm and attend the National Western Stock Show. "It is so American," she said as I glared at her on the ski lift.
I wooed a beautiful saleswoman in an art gallery in the weeks leading up to her departure to take a post as a curator of small museum in Virginia. I realize now that it was probably for the best that she really did take that job. It was becoming exhausting pretending that I had the budget to spend $8,000 for an oil painting that looked like a smudge of grass, dirt and blood. I put her off by endlessly debating which smudge best exemplified the artist's obvious feelings of malaise about American life while she talked about how much the commission would assist her move.
I actually followed one woman back to her parent's home in a rural Pennsylvania town. During my first evening there, I walked up and down the burg's three streets and looked at the Christmas lights glimmering in the windows of the houses and the store fronts. There was no one else out on the streets, no stores were open, no signs of life except the decorations and the omnipresent glow of the television in every living room. I couldn't wait to return to Boulder, even if I was coming back alone.
Needless to say, I understand the hapless, lovelorn men in Steven Wingate's magnificent new story collection, Wifeshopping, which won the prestigious Bakeless Prize for short fiction. Wingate portrays men in the elusive search for love in these 13 diverse tales. In almost every story, his characters manage to betray themselves, breaking hearts (most often their own) time and time again. The methods of betrayal are myriad and remarkably creative.
"(I wrote) probably two dozen stories that were all clustered around this idea of searching for love, because I think both psychically and imaginatively I was really trying to figure out what the love thing was and how relationships worked and why they didn't work," Wingate said.
In the most poignant stories in the collection, it is long-term relationships that come to crashing halts because of a false move, an awful decision or just plain obstinance. The crisis is usually brought on by the narrator's emotional immaturity and inability to understand his own needs and desires.
In "Bill", the narrator is engaged to be married to a fellow law school graduate, Myra, when he develops a strange friendship with an old man at a flea market. He begins buying Bill's old clothing, much to his fiance's chagrin. With each old suit, new grievances emerge in the relationship. The fissures are opening before the reader's eyes and our stubborn narrator insists on carrying on at flea markets at his own peril. He's more defined by his ability to spot a good deal than by his capability of maintaining a meaningful relationship.
"We consider our ability to spot salvageable junk to be an almost genetic trait -- one that would undoubtedly pass on to my offspring whether their mother liked it or not. Myra had a problem with this. She bought what was fashionable and replaced it when it fell out of style, and viewed my family's hand-me-down habits as declasse. That's where she was wrong."
In many stories the men sacrifice their relationships for a quirky principle or an ideal that would seems ludicrous from the outside. Why are these men digging holes in the backyard when the pregnant women they love are stewing inside the house? Why are they ambushing their lovers with crazy relatives? They're fighting more to establish their own identities than for love.
"It's very easy to confuse the search for your own identity with the search for love. And I think most of the characters make that mistake to one degree or another," Wingate said. "I think a lot of flexibility is obviously required in a long-term relationship; some of these characters know that and some of them just aren't able to get beyond their own search for self."
Despite the similarity in themes between the stories, Wingate's pieces are remarkably varied in tone, plot and attitude. Each story is a world unto itself. His settings range from New England to Florida to Flagstaff. Most of the stories are written in the realist tradition, but one of the best ones "A Story About Two Prisoners," is a short experimental piece with a delightful twist. Also, Wingate's entertaining language and ultimately optimistic outlook infuses these stories with a lightness and a joy that belies their plots and characters.
"As a writer I have to entertain myself and keep myself happy, so working on a story over many, many drafts over many, many years, you have to get to know your character, you have to get to know their warts as well as the things that are funny about them and quirky about them," Wingate said. "Everybody's got their own humor and their own likability, and so finding that in my characters allows me to write them better than if I were to simply focus on one aspect of them."
There is one relationship that has a real chance among these stories. Clay has fallen in love with his widowed neighbor Lisbeth and her dog in "Knuckles." It's a tale of mature and patient love that spans months, rather then hours or days, but it has hit a snag. Each day Lisbeth takes her shaggy golden retriever to the park and he half stamps, half dances in the snow forming an "M", for her late husband Miles. Finally, Clay gets fed up with the routine and tells her "a dancing dog can't bring back dead people."
Lisbeth takes the dog away and leaves Clay's life and yet there is a bit of hope. Clay realizes his mistake. As she is leaving, Clay watched Knuckles, "the dog, who knew the score a lot better than I did, looked pleadingly back at me." A few weeks later he buys the dog a toy in his first efforts of rapprochement, which is a lot more than most of Wingate's men manage to do.
In Wifeshopping, there are no easy love stories. It's a lot like real life. Forming a relationship is tremendously rewarding, but it takes an ability to see beyond yourself, to be able to truly integrate another person into your world. Wingate writes about this process in a sensitive and humorous way that never becomes cliched or sappy. In the end, you believe there is hope for many of these characters despite their painful blunders.
After all, there was hope for me following all those false starts. My wife and I just celebrated our seventh wedding anniversary and she's staying in Boulder.
Steven Wingate will be signing his book at the Boulder Book Store on Thursday, September 9 at 7:30 p.m.
Here's are the links to my video interview with Wingate and a very entertaining book trailer for Wifeshopping.
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