Sometimes my wife will ask me how I came to be interested in reading a particular book. Oftentimes I have no answer which could be regarded as linear thought: no, I didn’t read a review of it in The New York Times Book Review. No, it wasn’t because I saw it resting in a book shop window with a “Bestseller” banner. More often than not my interest was piqued because of seeing a particular author or title mentioned in some seemingly unrelated article or web page,.
Dear reader, there are so many authors out there whom we’ve never heard of. We do ourselves a disservice to be constrained by media’s adjective-enriched grandstanding over a new title by a “popular” author (bearing in mind that the vast majority of readers are decidedly genre-baked and burn through the likes of James Patterson or Patricia Cornwell like devouring a bag of Cheetos).
We are, all of us, susceptible to the allure of a great title, the cover art, a smashing quote from a recognizable author. Where would the world be without advertising? But there is something almost magical in the way we readers can be drawn into an intellect-based curiosity when encountering a reference, an inference, which on the surface may be difficult to explain (re-read first paragraph). It’s like our thoughts being refracted like light through a prism. So I’ve chosen a name for this phenomenon: cognitive redirection.
An example may be helpful. You’re reading a news story in the newspaper about Covid-19 in which the reporter mentions other outbreaks in the past—polio, meningitis, dengue fever, SARS, etcetera—and in so doing employs the word plague. You, being a literate person, immediately think of Albert Camus’ incisive, eponymous novel. You may have read it long ago, but are curious and look it up with the usual web resources. Now you’re intrigued; inspired by current events, even if you have read it before, you want to read it again. So it’s off to the library or Amazon or perhaps even to your favorite local bookseller. Voila! Cognitive redirection .
I did not mean to digress to this extent, but I do not apologize for doing so, for it was because of my own cognitive redirection that I came to read Townsend Walker’s 3 Women 4 Towns 5 Bodies and other stories collection.
As is my wont, I had read one of Walker’s short stories on Fictional Café and found it both amusing and absurd, a combination I gravitate toward in both reading and my own writing. His bio stated he’d published a book of stories, which I thought commendable, so I wrote him an email praising him for his accomplishments. It’s rare that I do this, and even more rare when the author or artist writes back. (Are your ears burning, Jason Gay?) To cut to the chase, Walker kindly sent me a copy of his book to review.
It was an entertaining read, with a caveat: the stories pursue a common theme, the relationship between men and women. If one accepts author John Gray’s premise, that men are from Mars and women from Venus, one will often nod in approbation while reading these stories. Walker displays considerable acumen in creating different and interesting characters and scenarios from one story to the next, but thematically he’s a one-note samba.
These are stories of, by, and for the male reader. While rich in atmospherics, as in the eponymous title story, the author does not portray much depth of male or female emotion or psychology, but rather lets us into their lives through exemplification. Things tend not to work out between the males and females, which is a lot like real life. Women—even those who appear to be strong—seem more likely to end up at a disadvantage in these stories, as in “Down at the Devil.” Yet I found myself feeling nothing, not love, nor pity, nor anger, nor disgust, for any of the characters.
Both men and women play their own endgames in these stories, each striving to be the one-upmanship winner but usually winding up in a Kobayashi Maru. Walker is at his best describing contemporary people, around-the-world places, and events such as in “Storm Painter” or “You Think You Are So Smart,” but less so when he recreates scenes from the past, for example “Village of St. Fiacre” and, to a somewhat lesser extent, “Coming Home.” Write what you know is the writer’s first commandment, but hey, nobody’s perfect and not all works in a collection are to everyone’s taste.
What emerges is the recognition that Townsend Walker is a serious writer who works diligently at his craft. He’s not a one-off guy, as evidenced by the diversity and number of literary magazines that have published his stories. Not to mention Deeds Press, publisher of this handsome book, which for the novella “3 Women 4 Towns 5 Bodies” alone is worth its cover price.