Jason Ockert’s first novel opens the way I imagine a Cormac McCarthy nightmare begins:
The soldier pitches himself from the moving train. When he hits the ground his ankles turn, and he drops. He rolls down a slope and splays out beside the trunk of a tree. He breathes like he’s trying to blow out a bonfire.
The nameless soldier, returned from active duty overseas, strips his gear, his journal, and stumbles aimlessly deeper into the woods of upstate New York in migrained agony, until he pauses in a river’s shallows to birth a dozen parasitic wasps.
This is only the first two pages.
It doesn’t take long for the wasps to multiply, and their buzzing drone continuously haunts the periphery of the story and the broken families that occupy it.
It’s summer, upstate New York wine country. Seventeen-year old Hudson is visiting his estranged, alcoholic father with his younger half-brother, Speck. While father and son find themselves struggling to communicate and reconnect, the two half-brothers drift apart and grow up. The vineyard where they’re staying, owned by the Mullers, needs to be razed in order to flourish again. The Mullers are bereaved since the suicide of Elizabeth Muller—wife, mother, grandmother. Soon, Speck finds the soldier’s discarded journal in the woods, and unravels a bizarre and terrifying tale of tongue-gnashing, face-ripping aggression; of hearing impairment; of migraines; of enormous wasps—the same ones Speck disturbs. Hudson finds himself simultaneously juggling a distant drunken father, a liaison with the vineyard owner’s daughter, Madison, and an escalating tension with his summer employer, Crowley, who pulls Hudson into his cruel and disturbing side project. Meanwhile, the wasps reproduce, migrate, and infest.
One of Ockert’s strengths—in his story collections and in Wasp Box—is his ability to capture family: the awkward and difficult moments; the clumsy navigation of delicate situations; the discrepancies and sacrifices; the tender instances lost to stubbornness; and the selfish, rash choices. The characters in Wasp Box all possess some degree of arrested development, and within this arrested state they become parasitic. Family brokenness is a collaborative effort. The characters all seem to be passengers on a trip they are unsatisfied with, yet somehow feel contingent upon, unable to reroute.
The novel is also, conversely, about family loyalty and the struggle to relate. It is about the pains and fears of growing up, the pains and fears of watching children grow up in the surrounding, dangerous, unforgiving world.
Each [grape] will stretch its flesh and test the limits of the bunch—seek to snap from the little community on the vine. It is difficult to stave off the curious desire to detach. There is no need to give this much thought. The harvest comes sooner than you expect. They will be plucked and pulverized, blended into the essence of the others—aged and bottled until the beauty of the individual shape and dimension is replaced by the classifiable specifications of flavor and body and aftertaste… There will be grapes that are overlooked. It is inevitable. Some will be spared by the harvesters. Eventually weight will overcome the strength of the wilting stalk trying to hold the bunch together and a renegade grape will unexpectedly find itself free on the earth. The wind will blow, and the outcast will roll. There is a thrill to the adventure. Who knows what exists in the next row? A bit of bruising is a reasonable price to pay for a peek over the horizon. In time, all wanderers must settle. That robust skin will sag and shrivel. Things will sour. And as months pass and the cold earth claims the tired remains, will the grape remember the sweet time huddling in the bunch?
Many chapters begin with brief descriptions of wasp species. The more violent and dangerous these species become, the more havoc the novel’s wasps wreak on the flora, fauna, and characters themselves. The built-in vespology eventually aligns with the story’s logistical terror in a way that sounds like a lost episode of The X-Files:
To fell the giant simply takes a Q-tip-sized queen… dropped down onto a shirt collar. The queen will wait for Andrea Davis to fall asleep… Andy will drift off into her train dreams. There is no way for her to understand what will happen next. The queen will climb carefully through the netting of hair and, leading with soft, unassuming, anesthetic bites, nestle into her ear canal and deposit what looks like a teaspoonful of tapioca pudding. The egg sac contains high levels of hydrofluoric acid that burns through the earwax so that it slides through the inner ear canal. Soon, it will penetrate the eardrum and begin the slow burn through the cochlea to the vestibular nerve. In less than a day, the larvae—a half-dozen or more—will squirm out of the sac and squeeze through a tiny hole in the temporal bone that the acid has eaten away. The head is an incubator filled with more than enough protein upon which the insects will ravenously feast. Then the adolescent wasps will borrow into the Eustachian tube and emerge as adults from the host through the nose or mouth. Before that, the queen will climb back out and die satisfied in the tracking along the windowpane.
In contrast to Ockert’s stories—where attention to compression and sentence complexity is paramount—in Wasp Box he unpacks his prose, letting the emotional, psychological, and narrative intensity ruminate and breathe like a bottle of Muller Roux. Still, we are not without Ockert’s gorgeous sentences: “Hudson fights the urge to kiss Madison. The sweet scent of her perfume, her half-parted lips, the innuendo in her luminous blue eyes; they tug like an invitation.”
What develops in Wasp Box is horrific, beautiful, bizarre, poignant and mesmerizing. The sensory and visceral detail will cause readers to claw at their legs and necks, jam fingers into their ears, or hop on one foot to shake from the head what may lurk inside. Wasp Box portrays families at their best and worst, strongest and weakest, closest and most distant. Above all, it offers a portrait of the resilience and reliance necessary to survive.