The characters in Greg Jackson’s prismatic debut collection, Prodigals, are searchers. Most want more than they have: money, fame, artistic and/or spiritual contentment. They all yearn for the “standard” tenets of adult life: structure, comfort, purpose, an end to the enervating restlessness of youth, a home to come back to. But as the years add up, those benchmarks get complicated, muddled. Does anyone ever truly grow up?
“It was an odd moment in my life,” confesses Daniel, the rut-stuck journalist who narrates the uncanny and ambiguous “Serve-and-Volley, Near Vichy.” Daniel is on his way to stay at the home of former tennis legend, Lèon Descoteaux—a man who, as we soon learn, may be more Patrick Bateman than Pete Sampras.
I no longer felt young, but I didn’t exactly feel old. I felt, I suppose, that I was running out of time into which to keep pushing back the expectation that my life would simply sort itself out and come to resemble the standard model.
Jackson’s characters crash against a harsh reality: maybe adulthood is a kind of social mirage; perhaps nobody ever has things quite figured out. Even for those who do obtain something close to what they were looking for, there are existential disappointments—as in filmmaker Ben’s introspective and aching deconstruction of relationships in “Dynamics in the Storm”:
And had I married my wife out of much more, really, than my own aggrieved plea for stability? … But I also think I had the idea that we would grow together over time, that our differences would soften, and that we would erosively remake each other in the gentle spaces of domesticity and parenthood. And so I was haunted, when this didn’t happen, to see, and even more to feel, that there were parts of her I still had never gained access to and probably, therefore, never would.
The story doesn’t simply pose these weighty questions; it answers them too. Susan, Ben’s therapist and hurricane outrunning road-trip companion, answers his question about whether she’s never lonely: “Susan ran her fingers through the condensation on her window. ‘Maybe I don’t expect to be unlonely.’”
Prodigals is thematically cohesive and a stylistic tour-de-force. Jackson isn’t one writer—he’s eight. This shapeshifting is both a strength and a weakness. Each story feels utterly apart from the rest in tone, voice, and mechanics. At times these leaps are compelling—in “Epithalamium,” Hara’s irascibility provides a welcome juxtaposition to the detached “Serve-and-Volley, Near Vichy”. Other times, they’re jarring—I’ll admit, each successive story left me feeling a small emptiness, a desire to return to the previous voice that had worked so hard to win me over.
The stories are enjoyable even when Jackson telegraphs his literary nods: the world-weary, ruminative flatness á la Roberto Bolaño (“Serve-and-Volley, Near Vichy”); the savvy, reflexive contrivances—but with heart!—of David Foster Wallace (“Amy’s Conversions”, “Metanarrative Breakdown”); the crackling, hyper-lyrical lucidity (“Wagner in the Desert”) that brings to mind Nabokov in the midst of a bender.
It’s “Wagner” that stands out. Like, holy crap. This is one of those once-in-a-thousand, stop-what-you’re-doing-and-read-this-right-now kind of stories that leaves no doubt that the fate of the short story is safe and sound, a story that, in the summer of 2014, had New Yorker readers frantically Googling “Who Is Greg Jackson?” to see how they could have possibly overlooked this staggering talent. The story works as a microcosm for the larger vision of Jackson’s work: brainy, bold, and slyly anarchic. Cross the aesthetic mercuriality of Paul’s Boutique-era Beastie Boys with the dark narrative rabbit holes of the Coen Brothers and you’ll be somewhere close.
A story about transcendence, “Wagner” itself transcends a premise as potentially arid as the California desert of its setting, where privileged, early-thirtysomething “modern hustlers” are on a week-long drug binge, to become a messy, hilarious, and profound romp about the search for the search for spiritual enlightenment. Unlike, say, the unfeeling vampires that populate the early novels of Bret Easton Ellis, with these characters there’s always the smallest hope for the future, for human connection—dare I say love?—even if the means, often, is to find a better, stronger, high. Because everything else has proven disappointing—not disappointing, exactly, but not as pleasurable as it was supposed to be. But the pleasure of Jackson’s prose never disappoints—not least at “Wagner’s” rhapsodic climax.
We were listening to a late Beatles album very loud, finding folds within the music that seemed never to have been there before and unlikely to be there again. Lily, every few minutes, burst out laughing wildly, I don’t know why. We petted each other a little, sensually, asexually, then we passed into the Coachella Valley, swept down, down into the vast grid of lights, so many colors, all communicating with one another in a lattice of shifting and persistent harmony. And as we returned to the valley floor, where the windmills blinked red and the stars through our open windows were small rounded jewels in the great velvet scrim of night, Lily spoke.
“It’s like… it was all choreographed for me,” she said, her voice hushed and marveling. “Like everything was arranged for me. To experience just like this.”
Epiphanies like this are frequent in Prodigals. Many are not to be trusted, but they are not to be entirely discarded, either. Finding a balance between epiphany and experience—maybe that’s where growing up can begin.
David Byron Queen grew up in Northeast Ohio. Since graduating from The New School, he has worked as a dishwasher on a reality cooking show, a copywriter, and a script reader in Hollywood. His work is forthcoming in NANO Fiction, and has also appeared in The Rumpus, Monkeybicycle, Everyday Genius, Lumina Online, and VICE. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.