The eleven stories in Adam Prince’s debut collection, The Beautiful Wishes of Ugly Men, feel lived rather than written. Like stories told by strangers in bars when you’re both drunk, their core tragedies and ironies achieve a casual, understated universality. You might not remember them forever, but they hit deep down and leave a mark.
Most of the stories begin with men at breaking points in their middle-of-the-road American lives (“Peter was cozy … and restless within that coziness,”), and unspool from there. Ranging from early- to late-midlife crises, these breaking points erupt out of a fertile zone beyond passive-aggression but before the game-change of actual violence.
In the brisk opening story, “Big Wheels for Adults,” a young man on the verge of marriage goes to a strip club with his burnout childhood friend and lets his “fantasy of being a good husband” shift “to a fantasy of undressing their young, white-bloused waitress in the waiting area between bathrooms: He would pop those buttons loose. Except that he wouldn’t. Wouldn’t ever, because Carli was pregnant.”
“You have to settle,” he informs his friend, smugly though they both know he’s right. Then, a moment later, he can’t suppress the other truth about Carli, his “short and rounded” pregnant girlfriend: “Sometimes when I’m out with her and a beautiful girl walks by, it isn’t just lust I feel, but rage.”
These are the beautiful wishes – being a good husband v. acting on lust and rage – between which Prince’s ugly men careen, slamming from one side to another of a bounded arena. They seethe up to the edge of breaking out and then retreat, terrified of discovering what actually, rather than ideally, lies beyond. Unable to bear the pressure of wanting everything, they try to convince themselves that happiness means living with less than enough.
So, more than about beauty or ugliness, these are stories about inertia. On the surface, they’re about men driven to break the inertia that keeps their lives anchored in conventionality. Underneath, they’re about the other kind of inertia, the kind that hurls you into motion, at an accelerating rate, once you make any move in a new direction.
Stylistically, Prince borrows from the caustic, alcohol-soaked realism of John Cheever (“Walt could see the hope go out of John. A slack in his body. A different way of drinking”) as well as from the cinematic suburbias of American Beauty and Little Children, where everything’s a little too creepy to settle into melodrama. Some stories edge into Chuck Palahniuk territory (“He’s an ugly man … a dun-skinned corpse with poking eyes and a film of sweat thick as Saran Wrap”), but melancholy holds them back from the baroque. And while the prose defaults to terseness, disarming poetic flourishes enliven every story: “Her psyche was like an old English mansion in winter. Whatever rooms couldn’t be kept warm and bright were boarded up.”
These men are vividly dubious. We get very little detail about them, and what we do get rarely adds up. Yet, every time, it’s enough to grant them life as sketchy people, poorly drawn to and in themselves, rather than sketchy characters, poorly drawn on the page. As Prince renders it, lack of detail is a state of being, not a state of being-written-about. This is crucial. These are men who barely know themselves, who have “never been good with feelings … never trusted them or quite understood what they were.” They can feel the presence of something more, to selfhood and to life, but unable to turn inward they foist the burden of realizing it outward onto others. The man who “imagines her understanding him in a way that he is unable to understand himself” could be any of the men here.
Desperate to connect through sheer need and force of will, Prince’s lost souls tumble onto one another’s doorsteps, demanding to be recognized and taken in. In “Island of the Lost Boys,” a middle school math teacher goes home to his young, weirdly flirtatious mother after almost kissing a boy in his class, while “Keener” portrays a “creepy-ugly and socially hopeless” man on a spiritual quest that mainly involves crashing with his doting sister and her less-than-doting boyfriend. In “Action Figure” a meth-addict “raises a fist to hammer the door” of his parents’ house on Christmas Eve, knowing he’s not welcome there, while in “Ugly Around Him” a man whose daughter has just been killed attacks and then gets raucously drunk with the sex offender next door. Working together as a leitmotif, these scenes of uninvited arrival draw the need for closeness and the menace of pursuit uncomfortably, thrillingly close.
These aren’t stories about fate. They’re about the long-term trajectory of choices, and the danger of believing that not choosing isn’t itself a choice. There are no second chances here, but if desire lasts as long as life does then so must the conviction that choices matter. As the men grow older over the time that passes between the early stories and the late ones, they also begin to grow up, negotiating the same conundrums but with increasingly higher stakes.
In “Bruises and Baby Teeth,” the penultimate story, an elderly man whose wife left him decades ago, “came home early, poured a vodka rocks and carried it from room to room, turning on the light when he entered and off again before he left.” After however many hundreds of nights spent just like this, a chance encounter with a married woman still fills him with adolescent excitement. The promise of love, however remote, has not been so mangled by life that it strikes him as unreal.
“A. Roolette? A. Roolette?” the splendidly sad final story about a 50th high school reunion is both a microcosm of and an epilogue to all that’s come before. Ruminating on unrequited attractions, lies, and relationships broken and maintained over the course of a lifetime, it wonders aloud how much difference the seemingly cataclysmic decisions of youth actually make. Fifty years down the road, their ranks already thinned by death, those who remain discover that it all comes down to love, but only if you courageously devote yourself to it. Otherwise it all comes down to nothing.
For all of the drunks and dreamers collected here, stretched thin between animal and emotional callings, the path of love and commitment, out of the lonely middle of life, is worth choosing – even though it leads inexorably, like all paths, to the end.