Theodore Wheeler’s debut collection of fiction Bad Faith is a lesson in perfidy, deception, and duplicity—a contemplative exploration of the vagaries of the double-minded human heart. There are eight stories in the collection. Or are there fifteen? Alternating with eight fuller, more traditionally rendered stories are seven vignettes, whose narrative purpose becomes clear in the final, culminating story, “Bad Faith.”
In Bad Faith, Wheeler gives us drifters, truckers, handymen, squatters, runaways, and farmers. They are from Lincoln or Omaha, the big cities in Nebraska, or they live in the shadows of those looming cities. They don’t work the jobs they say they do; they don’t come from where they say they do. They are not entirely sure who they are. They hop freight trains; they drift; they join the army; they murder; they kill. Presenting themselves as better people than they really are, they also end up deceiving themselves into believing their own hype. No one is as simple as they seem and everyone wants more than they can have.
A married man leaves his pregnant wife alone with their two young daughters for the weekend and flies to San Salvador to hang out with a former college buddy. A father of three falls into a depression when his oldest son (whose mother he refused to marry) dies an accidental death. A boy whose mother leaves for military duty is home alone with his handyman father, who can’t figure out how to drop him off at daycare. A man in the profession of revenge is forced to do charity work. Men dying of cancer stop off at bars after their chemo treatments, needing the alcohol to abate the radiation. Bars take the place of churches; they are where these men go for recognition and healing.
“Impertinent, Triumphant” pays homage to Anton Chekhov’s famous “Lady with a Pet Dog.” In Wheeler’s version, we similarly encounter two vacationers, Sam and (you guessed it) Anna. Instead of Yalta, Sam and Anna meet in Atlanta. Wheeler’s Anna carries a toy radio around with her all of the time, instead of a pet dog. The two agree to take in some sights and putter around. While sightseeing, they kiss publicly. We hear more strains of Chekhov when Wheeler describes Anna’s husband. “Anna’s husband worked in government, she said. He wanted to be elected to high office someday. He worked campaigns for principals in the local party now, as many as he could get in on.” This Anna is married to a “flunkey,” just as Chekhov’s was.
Sam accompanies his wife on a business trip, but decides to stay behind after she leaves, presumably to exact revenge by having an affair with Anna. He convinces himself that there is “something noble, isn’t there, about being the second one in a marriage to stray. If you are the aggrieved and you stand up for yourself, people should applaud.” Like Chekhov’s Dmitri Gurov, Sam exonerates himself. A Pomerian, the same dog Chekhov’s Anna had, makes an appearance. The Pomeranian seduces us into believing we know how the story will end, yet Wheeler’s deft use of Chekhov is a deliberate façade to mislead the reader and mask the story’s true intentions.
Wheeler keeps his readers at a distance, preventing us from entering the minds and psyches of these men, just as these men hold the people they encounter at bay. We see the sides of them they want us to see, and what they conceal from other people, they also conceal from us. In refusing to let us in, Wheeler prepares the reader for menace. His characters are too resigned to their fates, too accepting of the cards they have been dealt, whether it is terminal cancer, date rape, the death of a teenage child, a bullying spouse. We wait for the calm surfaces of the stories to be disrupted. Will the man who went to San Salvador on a whim turn up missing? Will the military mother be killed in action?
In “The Mercy Killing of Henry Kleinhardt,” Henry is a man dying from cancer.
His pores were open and discolored, his fingertips smooth with burns. Henry was a farmer. He’d worked with chemicals his whole life, fertilizers and pesticides that put him in this fatal condition. Nothing was capable of saving Henry; he knew that. He took the chemo because the county was required to give it.
Just as Wheeler affords Henry no sympathetic portrayal, Henry denies his son Aaron any sympathy. Instead of appreciating that his son has returned home to care for him, Henry shoos him away and pretends indifference, warning Aaron that he will die whether Aaron is there or not.
The people in Wheeler’s collection have no delusions of grandeur, nor are they easily taken in. A veteran hops a train to attend the funeral of the mother he has not seen in years. He finds himself a stranger in a chapel filled with her nursing home buddies. Invited for a repast, he tells his mother’s best friend that he is a gospel singer, when he really works clearing the roads and mowing for the city. He feels no remorse for his lie: “He doesn’t feel bad about lying, about saying he’s a gospel singer, but he would like to have sung to her the way the hymn was meant to be sung.” Content with his small life, which includes renting a room in a boarding house, mowing for the city, and having a sometimes girlfriend, he nevertheless remains vigilant and alert to the presence of danger:
Rodney surveys the yard through the blustering clouds of mosquitoes, looking for objects that might break the mowers—pieces of metal, chunks of lumber, a broken suitcase—and for bodies that have been dumped. He’s heard stories about corpses hidden in the weeds, girls with skin coal black from decay, their shirts torn off, skirts pulled up over their hips, but he’s never come across one.
Wheeler’s characters are hopeless but resolute, savvy and unremorseful. They face the world head on, acknowledging its ugliness and its dark side. Like Rodney, we readers remain alert to the presence of danger and death—the entire collection hints of it. Yet as the title suggests, this is a promise made in bad faith. Wheeler makes us think we know what will happen, and from what direction the danger will come, only to show us just how mistaken we are.
Amina Gautier is the author of three short story collections: At-Risk, Now We Will Be Happy and The Loss of All Lost Things. At-Risk was awarded the Flannery O’Connor Award, The First Horizon Award, and the Eric Hoffer Legacy Fiction Award. Now We Will Be Happy was awarded the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction, the Florida Authors and Publishers Association President’s Book Award and a USA Best Book Award. The Loss of All Lost Things was awarded the Elixir Press Award in Fiction and is forthcoming in 2016. Gautier’s stories have appeared in numerous literary journals, including Agni, Callaloo, Glimmer Train, Iowa Review, Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, and Southern Review. Gautier has been the recipient of grants and fellowships from Breadloaf Writer’s Conference, Callaloo, Hawthornden, Hurston/Wright Foundation, Key West Literary Seminars, Kimmel Harding Nelson Center, the MacDowell Colony, the Ragdale Foundation, the Sewanee Writer’s Conference, Ucross, and the Vermont Studio Center. Gautier teaches in the MFA program at the University of Miami.