Of late, though, the literary tradition of the American West has been reduced to pious ideology. In a sense we’ve exploited the literary uses of the land, mountains, rivers and streams to such an extent that almost any meditation on those subjects appears didactic, stereotyped and, frankly, boring.
And this is why Rick DeMarinis’ latest collection of short stories, Apocalypse Then, is so refreshing. While clearly part of the Western literary tradition, DeMarinis sagely writes against the grain of the stereotype. The stories in Apocalypse Then have an uncanny ability to transform the realistic into the bizarre and the bizarre into the vulnerable while remaining close to home. In his first book of short stories since the retrospective collection Borrowed Hearts (1999), and following his eighth novel, Sky Full of Sand (2003), DeMarinis separates this collection into three parts, each distinct yet ultimately connected by an undertone of imminent harm that always surprises as it enlightens.
The first—and easily the strongest—of the three sections consists of seven stories concerning one man, Moss, at various points in his adult life. In 1962, Moss attends college on the GI Bill, waits for work with a Seattle defense contractor and attempts to assuage his depressed wife, Corliss. Early on in the first and title story, “Apocalypse Then,” Moss fights with volunteers at a distribution center, arguing for his wife’s right to butter: “My wife has to have butter…Margarine is hydrogenated fat. She says the free radicals in it will give her ovarian cancer.”
Later, Moss and his two buddies break into a physics lab at night to finish an experiment; unbeknownst to them, they’re irradiated by high-velocity neutrons from a particle accelerator. When his wife accuses him of drinking too much with the buddies, Moss reveals the potential dangers of the evening. Loaded with stark details and psychological intimations, DeMarinis’ writing is poetic with a subtle and biting hilarity:
“‘All of us were radiated by high-velocity neutrons.’
‘You’re just trying to upset me.’
I sat down next to her and took her in my arms…I undressed her, slowly, the way that makes her wild. Someone undressed her that way a long time ago, when she was twelve. She told me that, but not who or why. I suspected the worst.”
On a trip to Flathead Lake in “The Bear Itself,” a friend named Roddy yells to his skinny-dipping wife: “Will you please put on some clothes, you goddamned whore!” With typical DeMarinis drollness, Moss observes, “If a handful of words can end a marriage, Roddy had found them.”
Tailing a life that moves from Montana to Seattle to North Dakota, from first affair to second affair and back to Corliss, the seven stories in this first section climax with the penultimate “Freaks,” arguably the darkest and most conclusive story of the entire collection. Moss undergoes physical transformations that echo the impending doom of that original Apocalypse story. Just as his 13-year-old son, awkward and overweight, is called a freak by cheerleaders, Moss develops his own freakish symptoms: double vision, impotence, lactating breasts. Unlike the Bible story, though, the potential end comes not for the world, but for Moss alone.
The second section offers nine stories that focus on men who die, either through electrocution (“Handyman”), heart attack “atop a bimbo” (“The Life and Times of a Forty-nine-Pound Man”), a vicious animal on the desert (“Bête Noire”), or from beating a woman to death (“The Horse Dealer’s Lovers”).
The final section focuses on the character of “Herbie,” the young son of a single mother and a quasi-Italian gangster he never knew, who comes of age in stories that end in young adulthood. At the end of the final story we automatically cycle back to our first encounter, to the title story of “Apocalypse Then,” to Moss’ early days of marriage and final days of school. At the end of this title story, Moss muses that “Sometimes the worst doesn’t happen. I didn’t get sick and die from exposure to high-velocity neutrons kicked free from beryllium by a partially shielded linear accelerator…Best of all, the doomed world did not end.” The glimmer of triumph appears, even if it remains ominous.
While firmly rooted in a firm sense of place and time, Apocalypse Then is one of the most original and intelligent works of fiction to come out of the American West. Best of all, settings we might know well and situations with which we are, perhaps tragically so, all too familiar are set in a context that chills, complicates and surprises with its dark sense of humor, all in one turn. Whether tracking the psychological damage done by war or the chilling shadow of nuclear weapons, DeMarinis’ cunning, cuttingly funny short stories follow the tradition of a literature that shows how life is essentially a trap: We didn’t ask to be born here, in these bodies, but we are forced to wait it out. In retrospect, Apocalypse Then contains an undertone of almost meek acceptance. It says, Okay then, if a little apocalypse must be, so be it. We can take it.