By Dallas Woodburn, Fiction Editor
Adam Prince’s debut collection of short stories, The Beautiful Wishes of Ugly Men, opens with an epigraph from Wright Morris’ The Works of Love: “What the world needed, it seemed, was a traveler who would stay right there in the bedroom, or open the door and walk slowly about his own house.” In these eleven riveting and multifaceted stories, Prince rises to precisely this challenge: he is the traveler brave enough to open the door and walk slowly about the domestic lives of his characters. (Is it any coincidence that many of these stories take place in the bedroom?)
The opening story is titled “Big Wheels for Adults” and centers on two childhood friends, Peter and Jocko, now grown men who have chosen completely different life paths. Jocko is unstable and unsettled, recently jobless, doing coke and visiting strippers. Peter, on the other hand, has a more conventional life: steady job, serious girlfriend, a baby on the way. As the old friends visit a strip club, the story could easily descend into crude slapstick, the characters into familiar trite caricatures. Instead, Prince refuses to let his characters—or the reader—off that easily. His characters are slippery as quicksilver, refusing to be pinned down into neat categories, continually shifting and doubling back from expectations. Peter muses about Jocko: “[T]he man was a mess—unstable, ill-equipped for happiness, likely to die any day from an overdose or a gun to the head—but then this same restlessness had also led to moments of extreme vitality and a sort of grace that had allowed Jocko to live in a mansion in Mendocino, have orgies, go hang-gliding in Yellowstone Park, and become Simone White’s boyfriend, if only for a year. It was a question, Peter would insist, of high highs and low lows versus stability” (19). In “Big Wheels for Adults,” and in the rest of the collection, Prince wrestles with themes of identity, aging, jealousy, love, and the eternal enchanting mystery of the roads not taken.
Perhaps my favorite story in the collection is the final one. “A. Roolette? A. Roolette?” takes place at a 50th high school reunion, and I was amazed at the skillful way Prince embodies these older men and women in the sunset of their lives. Another notable point about this story is that it is written in the first-person plural (“we”) perspective—a tricky challenge, but one that Prince pulls off beautifully. (I actually use this story as an example of a terrific first-person plural POV to my undergraduate creative writing students.) The story interweaves the past, present, and future of half a dozen characters, building to a bittersweetly charged final moment that left me with both tears and goosebumps—and made me want to immediately turn back to the first page of the collection and read the whole thing again!
You can get a sneak peek at The Beautiful Wishes of Ugly Men by reading Prince’s story “The Island of Lost Boys” which Peter Ho Davies picked as the winner of our 2010 Wabash Prize for Fiction and was subsequently published in Sycamore Review Issue 22.2-Summer/Fall 2010. You can also read our exclusive interview with Adam Prince here.
The Beautiful Wishes of Ugly Men
Black Lawrence Press
Adam Prince was born and raised in Southern California and earned his MFA from the University of Arkansas and his Ph.D. from the University of Tennessee. His award-winning fiction has appeared in The Missouri Review, The Southern Review, Narrative Magazine, and Sycamore Review, among others. He is married to the poet Charlotte Pence and is serving as the 2012-2013 Tickner Fellow at the Gilman School while at work on a novel that takes places in Jakarta, Indonesia.