Weston Cutter’s debut collection, You’d Be a Stranger, Too, delivers the magical click of excellent fiction.
A really good sentence, arriving at just the right moment within a story, provides the reader with a temporary home. “Here,” the sentence says, “I know you’ve been wandering around in unfamiliar territory, not sure where this is all leading, no map in hand. Live in me for a breath or two.” There are some sentences in which I have wanted to extend my stay for hours or even days. (When I first read Gary Lutz’s story “People Shouldn’t Have to Be the Ones to Tell You,” I thought I might want to live in its title sentence forever.)
But because the world is always rushing along, priorities and desires fluctuating based on some combination of weather, neurotransmitters, and luck, a single sentence, no matter how expansive, can’t be the only place you live for the rest of your days. Your needy, greedy self is ejected from the paradise of that sentence and has to fumble around in the fallen world, lost and overwhelmed and lacking any sort of map, until it finds a new sentence in which to take refuge.
The stories in Weston Cutter’s debut collection, You’d Be a Stranger, Too, are full of breath-stopping sentences that offer themselves up as temporary shelters. They also often take as their subject this very dynamic that I’m speaking of: storyteller as fearless guide through uncharted territory, provider of occasional shelters that can’t house us forever but that we keep searching for nonetheless.
The story that arguably makes this most clear is “Jump Night,” in which a character referred by his friends as the Fun, a twentysomething newspaper reporter in the town of Harrison, Minnesota (the setting of many of these stories), has been spinning an extended tale involving a character named… Weston Cutter. The Fun is drunk and wading through a river with his friends when “a quick finger of coldness” touches the back of his neck to accompany the realization that “the end of the story, whatever the real ending was, was beyond him.” The Fun appears momentarily defeated by this glimpse of his own “incompetence as narrator,” but then recovers, takes a swig of beer, and begins “again, in the dark with a boozy, fiery throat, ‘Weston Cutter looks ahead to where there’s no light, and looks behind him to where he knows Harrison is, and he takes a step in the dark.’”
Then there’s “Maps,” which conjures a world seemingly teetering on the edge of apocalypse (the likelihood of the world ending is calculated each day and announced, like a weather forecast, as a percentage), in which maps have been abolished. An “official voice” on the radio tells a story that is a paean to living map-free: “of Oklahoma Sooners, of Vespucci and Columbus, Marco Polo and abolitionists – of some great strivers who, years past, had found glory map-free, turbulently chasing a compass with no marked needle.”
Again and again in these stories we see characters who’ve thrown their lot in with a storyteller, who are in some form or another sitting at the feet of a raconteur, aware that the story is “a step in the dark” in a world without maps, but also sure that the there is something in this fiction that they need, some reason they keep listening and waiting. What these people, these listeners, are waiting to hear is, as one character says, “something not Googleable.” It’s nothing they can name. In “Party at the Kays’s,” the waiting takes the form of a party organized around the theme of jury duty (again, a situation defined by waiting). As the story closes in on its perfect conclusion (the best of Cutter’s stories conclude in ways that are surprising and inevitable, delivering what David Foster Wallace called the “click” for which readers and writers search), the narrator offers us this:
“What we heard next was what we’d been listening for, the sign we’d been anxious to receive, though, because no one can know what one’s waiting for – a bird on a tree branch, a skipped stone, a crumbling façade – until one finally has it, the waited for thing, in hand, one can never be sure. Because we tell ourselves that we’re waiting for a sign, a kiss, another five minutes, a hand held at every moment aside from trips to the bathroom, but it’s never any of that, not really.”
“It’s never any of that, not really” – this note is struck throughout this collection. Cutter’s stories remind the reader that the thing we’re waiting for as we read stories – the thing that keeps us sitting there turning the pages, willing ourselves to believe – will only satisfy for a moment before we see it for what it is: another sentence that, while beautiful, is at the same time propelling us on to the next sentence, feeding our hunger more than satisfying it. But we are given brief moments in the pauses between stories where we allow ourselves to believe that the sentence we just read could be our new home.
Then, of course, we are thrust out into the unsettling territory of the next page. As the title of one of these stories commands: “Don’t Get Too Comfortable!” We forget that advice a moment after we’ve heard it, because there’s something in us that can’t seem to give up that search for a home, for a fiction in which we could live forever. Cutter as writer, storyteller, and sentence-maker is smart and skillful enough that I as reader want to stay with him to follow his story’s surprising twists and his sentences’ unexpected turns. Of a musician whose songs bewitch the whole concert-going population of Minnesota (i.e. another one of Cutter’s storytellers), the narrator says “It was math, or sugar, you couldn’t tell: it was a perfect puzzle of creating want and pretending to satisfy the want.” This is, of course, what we look for in fiction: that perfect puzzle, that temporary shelter, that occasional combination of syllables that offers an illusion of the wait being over, of an arrival being finally at hand.