Harrison’s story collection showcases a prismatic view of the male ego, one exploded by expectation, hubris, and compassion.
Fiction | Stories
Review Format: Paperback ARC
New American Press
In Wrench, a sharp, empathic, and imaginative writer flexes on the strength of his background. A former mechanic and corrections officer, Wayne Harrison is able to leverage his experience in the best way, anchoring this collection of stories around the blue-collar brotherhood of the garage, but expanding far beyond it. While a number of stories deal with mechanics, with cars, wreckers, engines — and Harrison’s ability is perhaps most robust around these familiar entities — more of them, thankfully, escape those surroundings, and allow Harrison to stretch.
For the Venn Diagram of these stories, the center lies in fragile masculinity. Harrison’s male characters are, almost to a man, either troubled by their relationship to the masculine, or actively living with the consequences thereof. In the first story of the collection — and the kernel of his novel, The Spark and the Drive — Harrison comes out roaring with vigor; “Least Resistance” tells the story of Justin, a young man working in a hotrod garage and caught between his mechanic idol, Nick, and Nick’s wife, Mary Ann. Justin vacillates between the heady cocktail of accomplished testosterone when around Mary Ann, and the tender need for a father figure when around Nick. The story climaxes quietly, perfectly, denying Justin any voice or action and reminding him and the reader of just how young he is.
On the other side is “Storm Damage,” in which young mother Tiffany tries to rebuild her life in the wake of a hurricane, the least of her troubles caused by the storm. In a long separation from her boyfriend, Danny, things are brought to a head by the hurricane, and Danny — a character who, for a moment, seems all right — hits her while brusquely packing her things after a night out. In the light of day, the storm passed, Harrison provides us this perfect passage:
The big sycamore […] has gone over and, as though in a final defiance, torn from the sky all the power lines on both sides of the street. Under its ripped trunk, the bright blue legs of a postal box stick out like those of a flattened cartoon character. The sun is on her face, and for a wild instant she starts to laugh. It’s just everything, the strange lightness of the air in August, the rich blue of the sky, as though a film has been peeled away.
Tiffany moves back in with her mother, who is caring for Tiffany’s young daughter, Marcy. Danny’s poison spreads when Tiffany reaches a boiling point, but is stopped when, thankfully, Marcy provides a simple moment of kindness.
The interplay of fragility and strength is displayed most clearly, and most powerfully, in “Backlash.” A young man, Eric, and his girlfriend, Heather, skip out of school to fool around at Eric’s house, but are met by his estranged father, Frank, a former minister (and husband) who was ostracized by the church after he came out. The three of them end up taking Frank’s truck to go fishing, and along the way, Heather — largely ignoring Eric after a mood swing — grills Frank about sin, and the limits of forgiveness. A confession occurs, after which Eric has a violent outburst at the expense of Frank’s glovebox. The trip continues, nevertheless, and the trio arrive on the water, and Eric coaches Heather on how to cast. The story ends beautifully, with Eric’s brashness melting away in memory:
[…] Eric remembered passing his father a rod that first time, when he knew the fish was big, one that could pull you in, but he’d hooked it, he’d hooked a monster, and here, Dad, take it, Dad, I need you.
Wrench is not without its low moments, some ground re-covered, endings left a little too similar, characters and arcs re-cast. Despite that issue, it never originates in the garage; Harrison always manages to make those stories varied and deep. And, thankfully, it’s a singular repetition throughout an otherwise powerful collection.
Without the head-on tackling of masculinity at the center of almost all these stories, this might be a collection one would say is needless, one more on the pile of brutal and miserable collections. And, at first, one might think that it’s more of the same. But Harrison seems wise to this trend, and Wrench manages to make its subject matter its greatest strength, bringing into the world a prismatic view of the male ego, one exploded by expectation, hubris, and compassion. Hopefully it’s a trend that catches on, and Harrison continues to lead by example.