In the lead story of Theodore Wheeler’s debut collection, Bad Faith, a young man accompanies his dying father into a small-town Nebraska bar. The place is as bleak and not-where-it’s-happening as you would expect: “The Congress was a low-ceiling joint tucked into the side of a motel near the highway in Jackson County. Its patrons were a used-up sort of transgenerational loser. They huddled around dim candles and palmed cocktails. The collars of freebie Marlboro tee shirts lolled around their necks.”
This feels like Alexander Payne territory, an echo of a scene from the filmmaker’s black-and-white Nebraska. But where Payne seeks out bittersweet humor in his Cornhusker state road trip, Wheeler—who lives in Omaha—is heading somewhere darker, more desperate.
Bad Faith, which consists of eight stories and a set of linked vignettes, aims to add a body of contemporary fiction to a territory still best known for Willa Cather’s pioneers. The collection deepens and twists what we think we expect from both the characters and the stories themselves.
There isn’t one farmer or rancher among the main characters. Instead, these men lead lives of quiet desperation, working blue-collar jobs in small towns and cities, not the wide-open country. Unlike Willa Cather’s pioneers, they’re not contending with the implacable prairie and being broken by it, and yet there’s an aching sense of isolation about them, as if they’ve internalized the landscape of the Plains. They feel stuck but they aren’t about to change their lives.
A soon-to-be father of three travels in El Salvador with a college buddy. The husband of an acclaimed artist has a fling with an ordinary woman staying at his hotel. Their attempts to stray beyond their comfort zone return them, ultimately, to where they started. A few stories are smaller, intimate, snapshots. A kid tags along with his handyman father one summer while his mother is deployed as an Army nurse. A solitary landscape worker makes a connection with an elderly woman at his mother’s funeral.
There are very few big, dramatic actions in Bad Faith. Wheeler seems to be evoking a sense of paralysis, to steal Joyce’s word, or driftlessness. These characters don’t seem to quite know who they are, and therefore don’t know what they want. Their stories represent perhaps an effort towards some kind of self-understanding, but what insights they achieve are muted, incomplete.
This emotional malaise is echoed in, or perhaps created by, the prose. Wheeler favors sparse, unadorned sentences that at times can feel choppy or washed out, for example: “The boy next to the tuk tuk didn’t say anything. The boy didn’t know English. The boy didn’t appear to know Spanish. Worthy talked to the boy’s father. The boy’s father was the driver. The driver said he’d take them to the waterfalls. Upside the mountain. The driver set a low price and Worthy told the driver that would be fine.”
There are some stories whose protagonists, with their self-deprecating aimlessness, feel like the stereotypical Male Character in a Litmag Story, and other stories with flashes of intimacy where we can feel the real character beneath the words.
In “How to Die Young in a Nebraska Winter,” an adult narrator recounts the death of his half-brother, Brandon, when the narrator is a child. The narrator and his full brother’s comfortable suburban lives are contrasted with the small town where Brandon lives with his single mother. While the story is ostensibly about a formative time in the narrator’s life, by the end we realize we are really witnessing the father’s grief and how this incident forever shapes his life and his relationship with his remaining sons.
Family, ultimately, is the bond that ties these characters to their own lives. There’s a moment in the same story where, after the boy’s funeral, the narrator’s mother explains to him the trauma of losing a child. “She was willing to tell me things that others weren’t, to let me in on the secret tricks of becoming a person.” In the midst of a book so rife with severed bonds between children and parents, this moment of connection stands out all the brighter.
I’ll admit to short-sightedness as a reader—when I read a story whose setting is familiar to me, I expect the people in it to be and act like the people I’ve encountered myself. Perhaps this is due to the fact that there are comparatively much fewer works of fiction about the Great Plains states than there are about New York, Florida, Louisiana. I can’t help feeling a little jolt of excitement when Wheeler names a city I recognize (from a road sign along I-80, if not firsthand knowledge). I’m eager to read—as I’m sure almost everyone is—about people I know, people I’m related to or descended from. But, to Wheeler’s credit, that isn’t exactly what I found here.
Bad Faith builds a world that exists for its own purposes. The collection is interspersed with vignettes that lead like breadcrumbs from the opening piece to the last. The finale, also titled “Bad Faith,” unfolds in a three-part structure, guiding us back around to the beginning and answering the question that has been on our mind since page 23. It ties the whole collection together and ends the book on a different—and more intriguing note—than it opened on. To say more would be to spoil the treat. Suffice it to say that if a novel is meant to end with a sense of opening out, then this collection leaves us eager for more of Wheeler’s dark, quiet world.