Black Lawrence Press, 2012
Beneath a serious photo of himself in blazer and glasses, author Adam Prince’s webpage contains the following quote from his debut collection of short stories: “Because lust was a region into which the critical mind could only get so far. You could talk evolutionary psychology; you could talk feminism or Freud or the way it should be, but those were only dirt roads into lust, and sometime in the night, they would be washed away.”
In The Beautiful Wishes of Ugly Men, Prince sets out to explore the outer fringes of what men want. The title of the collection suggests that at the end of the journey readers might arrive clutching something basic and revelatory, some insight into how men think.
The eleven stories in the collection feature men in the midst of midlife crises, no matter what age they are. From the narrator of the first story, who celebrates his girlfriend’s pregnancy by getting high with a young stripper, to the aging reunion-goer of the last story, struggling to recapture illusory happiness through a last-minute marriage proposal to a high school crush, these characters face difficult choices between who they are and who they could be.
Take the tightly-paced initial story, “Big Wheels for Adults.” The title dredges up somewhat tired coming-of-age rhetoric. It perfectly describes the story beneath, of two childhood friends, now men in their early thirties, who arrange a wild night at a strip club. A few days before the outing, the narrator discovers his girlfriend is pregnant.
The night of the strip club outing becomes the setting for darker questions about the soul, the life that is, and the life of dreams. Peter, the narrator, loves his girlfriend Carli, but their relationship lacks passion. Compared to strippers, Carli is “thicker, more ordinary.”
Prince spells out the source of Peter’s dissatisfaction even more clearly: “Sometimes when I’m out with her and a beautiful woman walks by, it isn’t just lust I feel, but rage,” Peter thinks, followed by, “you have to settle…you always do.”
Peter’s inner conflict spills over into the public realm when the men befriend two of the dancers, Crystal and Hope. Hope “[is] one of the best-looking women Peter [has] ever seen in real life.” Peter and his friend end up back at Crystal’s house, where after a few lines of coke – it’s that easy! – Hope offers herself to Peter fully, sexually. He is conscious “of the shortness of her shorts, the contours of her thighs, the fact that she wore no bra or make-up and didn’t need to.” (Contrast her body, of course, with the absent Carli’s.)
For a man on a bender with a really hot chick, Peter doesn’t seem to be having a very good time. He drowns in a maelstrom of doubt. Does he stay with Carli and become a father, or does he escape into a world of unmoored passions? “It [is] a question of high highs and low lows versus stability,” he decides.
He puts distance between himself and sexual opportunity by fleeing to the porch. Hope eventually joins him and they sit together watching the sun rise, in what might be the world’s most obvious attempt at symbolism. Finally, when all hope of hooking up with Hope has passed, Peter announces Carli’s pregnancy.
Peter doesn’t really choose Carli, although maybe he defaults to her. It’s not any beautiful wish – to be a good husband, to start a family – that stops him, but the rawest thing of all; fear of living his fantasy. Peter pulls back his hand from plucking the forbidden fruit. And if the options that Peter faces seem extreme and broadly drawn – the earnest wife, the sexy stripper – that’s less Peter’s fault than Prince’s, who doesn’t quite transcend the tropes that comprise his story.
For a story collection with a promising title – one that suggests unexpected dichotomies of beauty and ugliness, seen and unseen – Prince rarely questions conventional types. The characters are usually what they appear to be. In “Ugly Around Him,” a man obsesses over his wife’s weight gain following pregnancy. He refers to her as his “fat wife” four times before he mentions her name. If the younger woman is a sex object, “the wife” appears almost universally in these stories as an anti-sex object, a cage and a trap.
In “Island of the Lost Boys”, the narrator struggles with his glamorous, absent mother, summing her up thusly, “she is beautiful and beauty is like that.” But like what, exactly? Distant and unattainable? The constant references to beauty and ugliness, and Prince’s need to separate characters neatly into one of these two camps, proves to be the collection’s greatest weakness. The characters struggle to surprise, and there is little movement within these stories, internally or externally.
And then there’s Prince’s writing style, which veers between accomplished and awkward. His sentences sometimes betray him, as in the following, “And as he spoke, he began to think about the difficulty of accounting for the distance between who a person was and who that person would like to be, between ourselves and the performances we put on for those we hope will love us.” How about the difficulty of switching point of view mid-sentence? Or the following sentence, which ends the collection: “he kneels down onto one arthritic knee.” Is there any other way to kneel but “down”?
The internal landscape of male desire is hardly uncharted territory. Try the rich, burning sentences of “A Sport and a Pastime,” in which a young Yale dropout seduces and discards a French woman he meets in that country. What saves that tawdry tale is James Salter’s stylistic mastery, his ability to craft sentences that leave a sensual aftertaste as intense as the richest French pastry. The tangible chemistry of the story redeems, or at least contrasts nicely with, the main character’s spiritual vacancy.
Or, in a more modern era, Nicholson Baker’s crisp and flippant Vox, which reinvents paid phone sex between strangers as an act of truant intimacy. A man and a woman trade increasingly daring sexual confidences in a conversation that builds to a climax even while remaining entirely auditory.
Finally, finally, there’s the classic master of ugly sexy beauty – Nabokov. The parasitic HH’s luscious odes to his teenage lover in Lolita belie the notion that love is anything other than an erotic construction.
Many authors have suggested that people are the sum of their parts. Many authors have written lovely, complex stories in which women, and to an extent men, are little more than objects. And many authors have used sex as a way into bigger divisions and ambiguities. While it may be unfair to compare Prince and Nabokov, it is fair to point out that his is a familiar and therefore difficult subject.
In the end, the only story in Beautiful Wishes of Ugly Men that lives up to the collection’s title is the final one, “A. Roolette? A. Roolette?” – in which a crowd of attendees at a 50th high school reunion reflect on the loves they have and have not pursued. At the end, one of the graduates – realizing at last that life is short – goes down on one knee to propose to the girl he was in love with in high school.
The idea that her beauty can return him to the youth he lost or correct a life lived imperfectly – that is a lovely wish, despite the “arthritic” state of his body.