June 16: “The Atlas Show” by John Carr Walker

Greetings from Chicago, Story366! The family and I left our Collinsville Drury Inn before 7 this morning, arriving at my mom’s place outside Chicago before noon. Two of my nephews who live in Vegas were visiting this week, but were flying back home today. So, the plan was for me to get to Chicago early enough to not only drive them to O’Hare, but spend some time with them in the city. I hadn’t seen these nephews in a few years, and neither of them had ever been to downtown Chicago. So I took them and my two boys and we hit Chinatown, then Millennium Park, then Buckingham Fountain, then took the Blue Line up to O’Hare to see them off. My boys and I had to take the train all the way back to Chinatown then, but my boys both love the train, so it was all part of the adventure. Still, long day, as we woke up in St. Louis at 5:45 and I fit in all that stuff I just described in Chicago. I’m pretty wiped.

I still found time to read from John Carr Walker’s Repairable Men, out from sunnyoutside. Repairable Men is a book about damaged guys, as the title suggests, guys who have been through a lot, guy who go through a lot more in these stories, guys who just need something to go right for them. It’s a tough collection so far (I’ve read the first few stories), tough in that these aren’t happy stories, but rather, tales about how screwed-up guys work to make their lives even more screwed up. This could be the companion collection to my I Will Love You for the Rest of My Life: Breakup Stories, Walker picking up where I left off in a lot of ways.

“The Atlas Show” is the piece I’m writing about today, my favorite of the three I read. A lot of it being my favorite has to do with the fact this is a story about baseball, about a failed young player who hasn’t yet gotten around to telling anyone that he’s a failed baseball player, that he’s no longer playing. He’s supposedly playing for the local juco, but he’s been kicked off. One line strikes me in particular, when he describes his career, thinking the juco is a step to either getting a scholarship at a four-year school or getting drafted, just assuming he is going to make it. Juco players do make the Majors—I spent my sophomore year at one and a dude in my creative writing class, Julius Matos, played for the Padres and Royals—but the protagonist’s optimism really struck me. My own playing career never took off, but there was a point where I was decent, even pretty good (like when I was 12 or 13). Then I went to high school and made the team, but was a backup (to a guy who was eventually drafted by the Astros a few years later) for a couple of years before hanging up the spikes. Still, me riding the bench, dreaming of playing for the Cubs, I rationalized things that way: I’m still going to make it. I’ll work out this winter, go to the indoor cages. I got time: I’m only 14. Of course, I’m writing story blogs and not enjoying my retirement from the Big Leagues, so as you can guess, I never spent a winter working out or any time at any indoor cages (on top of all that, I was a 5’10” right-handed first baseman with 50 percent vision in his left eye—it wasn’t going to happen).

Anyway, “The Atlas Show” is set up so the protagonist is dodging his father, the Atlas, with the truth. The Atlas—a former weightlifter (missed the ’72 Olympics by one slot) turned fat and salesman—is a big personality, a guy who has all the confidence in the world, be it putting heavy things over his head or sealing a deal. The Atlas can’t wait until Opening Day, his kid’s first game for the juco team, but little does the Atlas know, his kid has been kicked off the team and has been faking going to practice. Our protagonist just doesn’t have the heart, or the balls, to tell his dad, so it’s right up until game time, Opening Day, that he perpetuates the lie.

What’s great and uncomfortable and tense about this story is our guy lies about why he’s not on the team. We never find out the real reason—just that he’s been kicked off—but in the story he tells his dad is that he has a pro tryout with the Mariners, their scouts all over him at practice, so the coach canned him, his too much of a distraction. He’s more than implied he’s not on the team any more because he has this pro tryout. That should sate the Atlas, keep him off his back for a while, and when the Atlas starts asking questions, he can say that he just didn’t make it. But that’s a bridge he’ll cross when he comes to it, and we get the feeling that this is a credo for this guy, to cross bridges when he comes to them. It’s an effective way to depict a character.

The only problem with this fake pro tryout is the Atlas insists on driving him. The scene quickly turns uglier and uglier, our young protagonist driving around town with his dad, faking trying to remember where he was supposed to go. It reminds me of that great climactic scene in Shattered Glass when Hayden Christensen is driving Peter Sargaard around, looking for locations he made up for the stories he made up.  Our protagonist in “The Atlas Show” just keeps going, going as long as he can, with intense, satisfying, and well wrought results. You’ll have to read the story to find out what Walker does here, but it’s a great story, the ending extremely satisfying.

John Carr Walker has this skill, to take less-than-desirables and turn them into protagonists. They’re people who have to deal with themselves before they can graduate and deal with the shit Walker concocts for them. Of course, they’re who they are, so that’s not going to happen. These are tense stories in Repairable Men, but they’re good stories, stories that are well crafted and original, stories that know what they want to be and they be that. This is a solid book Walker has given us, one I enjoyed.