Extending from the left side of a photo on this book's cover is a set of hairy dude legs; each skinny trunk falls into a sloppy set of white tube socks, each foot bound in a pair of haggard black-and-white Chuck Taylors that look as naturally American as a black-and-white '57 Chevy. If it weren't for the photo's resolution, it'd be as easy to believe the snapshot was from that year as it would to learn it was taken last summer. So too are the stories within Michael Delp's recent release As If We Were Prey. These tales could be set as easily in 1957 as they could 2007. Men evolve; the tribulations posed by manhood do not.
Seconds into the book, you're at the tribute page scanning across the words "This one's for my dad, Wild Bill," and you begin to see more clearly the masculine and wistful scope Delp has us peering through. This lens shifts in and out of focus, deliberately and otherwise, throughout the next 112 pages.
As If We Were Prey is a rather short book of short stories that all fly by quickly, which is to the author's credit. The quick read is not due only to Delp's fine-tuned pace, which is fully intact here, but to the universality of subject: the fault and folly of man. As it is within each narrative, there's a story arc that curves from the beginning to the end of the collection itself, a chronological frame that attempts to capture some essence of men in several of life's phases.
Much of what Delp captures can be boiled down to jerkery. Much of what is intoned can be interpreted as literary retribution.
Delp's stories see a recurring character in the archetypal high school jock. Popular (by respect or fear) in school, he dies in one story, in others he becomes miserable, grows up to be fat, a schmuck, or a miserable, fat schmuck. Remember Ed Bundy from Married With Children? Him, in various incarnations.
When Delp's stories come with sturdier protagonists, the narrative flows. These characters are self-conscious and discontented men in their adult lives, but they are wondrous seekers, not depressed regressors. All Delp's men, as it were, are trying to work through something. So here's the question: Do we care to sit in on the breakthroughs (or breakdowns) of such an idiosyncratic set? That's up to the author.
When he doesn't get in the way of his writing, Delp makes you care.
But writing can be as therapeutic as it can be maddening, and sometimes you can tell which drives an author's work. If I'm wrong in thinking that Delp wasn't working through some of his own internal anxieties with the stories that appear in As If We Were Prey, then ignore this article and pass on anything stamped with my byline. There are too many commonalities to ignore, too many occurrences where Delp massages the same aching muscle.
In Prey, bullies fuck with heads and we learn the deepness of the wounds they inflict are only as deep as their well of depression, fathers are faulted heartbreakers we adore; the better the friend, the bigger the letdown; machismo is cancerous; love is evasive, but especially if you're a prick, etc.
When Delp gets out of his way and writes, we get such stories as "Traveling Einstein," "Mystery Park" and "As If We Were Prey."
In the first of those three tales we meet Arthur Bewley, the self-acclaimed "Master of Minutiae" who travels the back roads and tiny towns of Michigan's two peninsulas in a 1947 Dodge Power Wagon, making money off town-square trivia throw-downs. It's an odd love story and, like the other two, we hear a sentimental writer with a clever pen, always a welcome combo. When Delp's characters reach their tipping points (all eventually do), his writing changes — you could call it passionate, you could call it flowery — but when his men are as alluring as Bewley, Delp gets away with it adeptly. But when they come off as insincere as the duo of dudes he presents in "Therapy," or the pitiable father portrayed in "The Trees Growing Up Around Us," his arc descends with little inertia toward the finish line.
The book begins and ends with a couple of strong, albeit melodramatic, stories about bullies and their victims. We begin with "Commandos," a story that follows the prey of teenage sociopath Darryl Hannenberg (a name that sounds far too similar to actress Daryl Hannah, if you ask me). From ogling boobs to catching beat-downs and much worse, our narrator loses his innocence through a pair of binoculars. Delp opens ugly wounds.
Prey concludes with the story of a burnt-out shop teacher George Houck — a very alone Vietnam vet — who snaps. Right when we feel empathy for Houck, Delp throws some pretty icky dirt on him, leaving you uncomfortable with his day of reckoning, as it were. You can't help but ask: "Do we want him to get away with this?"
Is Houck's story a glob of Neosporin, or is it a ripping off of the bandage, scab and all?
That we are left with such a consideration is exemplary of the clever short fiction Delp shows he is more than capable of. When he doesn't get in the way of himself.
Note: With apologies to Erin Dorbin, Zeal Design Studios, and Maya Rhodes. There are far too many talented graphic designers in and around Detroit for it to be acceptable for Wayne State University Press to publish books as poorly designed as this recent release. I found the cover art amateurish, the title pages clumsy and vapid, and the slipshod array of fonts painfully unappreciative of the endeavor the author undertook in writing these stories.
A passage from "As If We Were Prey":
Houck is that rare kind of Western man who thinks of his life topographically. He sees in three dimensions, a Montagnard trick he learned in the Vietnam foothills from tribesman, who, legend has it, could silently kill with their bare hands or telepathically, and who taught him that landscape could literally be taken inside. "You must learn to watch yourself moving through the jungle," he remembered the elders whispering to him. Take the enemy inside you with you, and when you come out, you will be alone, and your enemy will be no more.
Somewhere inside, Houck does, in fact, see himself moving. He sees the green hand of Michigan, the roll and curve as the roads wind farther north, away from the hollowing sinking hole he sees in the middle of his chest. Inside the darker, tangled regions of himself, we watch a shadow winding through jungle toward even darker places; places so low on a topo map they are marked below zero.
Travis R. Wright is culture and arts editor of Metro Times. Write to Travis R. Wright at metrotimes.com.