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Cover Story: Well Enough Alone

Disconnected characters make light of their hang-ups in Matthew McIntosh's Well

By Jessica Turner · September 10th, 2003 · Cover Story
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  Matthew McIntosh's Well
Matthew McIntosh's Well



The trick, he said, is to refuse to believe that any of this makes sense. Because when it does -- when the world and life and the way things are make sense -- then you know there's really something wrong with you.
-- Matthew McIntosh, Well

"Hello? Hello?" Such is the sentiment captured in Well.

Matthew McIntosh's full-length work of short stories (as seen, in altered form, in Ploughshares, Playboy and Puerto Del Sol), come together only to form a world of detachment, indifference, loneliness and hope. Reality reading at its finest.

In Federal Way, Wash., our characters buzz in and out of each other's lives and the blue-collar town -- frequently for just a second, sometimes not at all. In a thoughtful collection of sketches, there's your townie bar keep. Your pizza delivery guy. Your adult entertainer. The trick, he said, is to refuse to believe that any of this makes sense.

Because when it does -- when the world and life and the way things are make sense -- then you know there's really something wrong with you.

-- Matthew McIntosh, Well

"Hello? ... Hello?" Such is the sentiment captured in Well.

Matthew McIntosh's full-length work of short stories (as seen, in altered form, in Ploughshares, Playboy and Puerto Del Sol), come together only to form a world of detachment, indifference, loneliness and hope. Reality reading at its finest.

In Federal Way, Wash., our characters buzz in and out of each other's lives and the blue-collar town -- frequently for just a second, sometimes not at all. In a thoughtful collection of sketches, there's your townie bar keep. Your pizza delivery guy. Your adult entertainer. Your delusional, geeky student. Your estranged father. Your first girlfriend. Your closeted tough guy. They're all in there.

In the well, that is. And they're mostly not well. Which is OK.

Well is group therapy. Or the menacing carnival fun house, its warped mirrors arguably reflecting the more accurate image. It's the unrequited, well, everything.

Twenty-six-year-old McIntosh's work isn't for the plot-driven reader, and it's a better book for its meandering. Names have no value, signifying the impact (or lack thereof) characters have on one another. It's certainly not the first time we've read anything in this "street anthropology" genre, but McIntosh's capacity for capturing true heartache, bewilderment and "the pain of living" is dead-on.

As McIntosh writes, "He held his pain and kissed it and stroked it, he told it he loved it more than anything, he loved its vitality, and begged it to leave./And many years later, when it went away, many years later/he would find/he would find that he missed it."

But the reader misses more development with bit characters. It would have been interesting to learn more about the dejected, habitual bus rider or the woman dialing Poison Control for a crash course on the pills she's preparing to pop. But by McIntosh excluding everyone's whole story, he illustrates subtly the one-sidedness of life.

Make no mistake: Well's bleakness is offset by its irony and hope.

It's tough not to laugh at Bill, the big talker whose might've-been plan to leave his wife gets spoiled by the Canadian Border Patrol. Or bite your fingernails nervously as Anna, the suburban housewife compensating for her by-the-book life, pushes herself on a treadmill to the point of blackout. Or wonder why James' scoring some heroin and sharing it with a homeless man at a soup kitchen proves there's still hope for mankind.

Nevertheless, all is well. Just don't wait by the phone.
Grade: B

 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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