Rob Walsh’s debut collection, Troublers (Caketrain Press, March 15, 2013), takes its title from my favorite story in the collection, “Seven Seas.” In the opening scene, a pirate captain questioning the morality of his career boards a cruise ship that his crew has just ravaged and addresses the surviving victims: “We are Troublers! You had to have seen those angry skulls across our ship! Why didn’t you escape, or least fend us off? In a way, this is as much your fault as it mine!” (58). The story is my favorite, not because it fed my inner-pirate fantasy, but because Walsh pushed the captain’s overbearing morality so I would identify with the murdering crew. The collection offers more than one kind of trouble for its reader to get into. Walsh pushes moral boundaries, delving into darker subject matter in many of the pieces and experiments with fictional traditions while creating an entertaining and thought provoking debut story collection.
In “After the Playpen,” Walsh tells the story of a father who won’t let either of his daughters outside of the “fort” he built for them, no matter how old they get. It paints a vivid picture of overprotective parenting and its consequences. In “Don Wayne,” Walsh’s narrator challenges the value of truth, saying, “there is as nothing as satiating as a good lie” (211). With the popularity of memoirs and reality television, I couldn’t agree more with Walsh that a good lie, fiction in my estimation, is much more satiating.
While I agree with the points he makes in “After the Playpen” and “Don Wayne,” I questioned whether Walsh tried to impart a deeper truth or pushed boundaries for the sake of the push in other pieces. In “The Butcher,” a woman who slept with the eponymous character asks him to push her mentally challenged son out of a window. Walsh does not show the outcome, but takes the story in a different direction, making it seem as if the son’s potential fall is extraneous. He does it again in the beginning of “The Two” when a first-person plural narrator, consisting of two men, meet a woman at a bar and try and shift the subject of conversation away from her son in a coma so they can take her home. Afterward, she leaves the story. I have no problem with disturbing details, but I want them to matter. Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from the Omelas” is an example of good balance between repugnancy and meaning. The image of the child locked in the dungeon is sickening, but Le Guin is making the reader confront a moral question. Walsh’s better stories do the same, but others fall flat, leaving me uncomfortable for what felt like no reason.
Troublers also experiments with the way fiction is written. The first four stories all leave out key details. In “The Fall,” an unidentified pulpy thing falls on a man’s head. It leads to a romantic liaison with the protagonist, a woman who has a proclivity for affairs with men who had things fall on them, but Walsh never reveals what the pulpy thing is. He withholds the baby’s numerical age in “D’Age,” details about the relationship between the protagonist and May in “More Like May,” and just why the woman started digging in the first place in “A Hole.” I racked my brain as I read these stories, trying to figure out what the absences would be emblematic of, and I believe I found Walsh’s explanation in “A Hole.” He writes, “The woman had not thought about doing things to the hole. She had wanted the hole for its own sake. A hole appended is no longer a hole but something defiled” (45). Maybe they are holes for their own sake.
He continues to challenge the traditional story form as the collection continues. In “The Two,” “The Dog,” and “The Lesser Reflection” Walsh uses first-person plural narration. He implies the relationships between the characters included in the “we,” but does not define them. It builds tension by forcing the reader to search for details about the relationship. He also changes his main character halfway through “The Butcher.” I’ve read stories where the point of view shifts before, but never a story where the original point of view character exits the story. It is disorienting, but the challenge of interpreting the story is satisfying.
Above all, Walsh kept me laughing throughout. The humor Walsh uses while dealing with dark subjects makes the work more accessible without making light of the subjects. The stories are tough, and I had to go back and read a few of the stories three and four times, but the humor made each reading a pleasure.
The title takes on more than one meaning. It is not a collection about pirates, but a collection of troubling stories that reimagine the short story as a form. I would recommend this book to people interested in experimental fiction or dark themes. If Walsh’s collection disturbs you, remember, he named it Troublers. It’s as much your fault as it is his.
Ryan C. Bradley graduated from University of Hartford in May 2012 and will start work toward an MFA in Fiction at Emerson College in September. His work has been published in The Missouri Review and winningwriters.com.