William Tester’s new story collection Head reads like a loose thread you keep pulling from your shirt with the sinking sense you’ll never be able to fix what you’re undoing—all the while keenly aware that you cannot, for your life, stop unraveling.
Head continues the antierotic tenor of Tester’s brilliant debut novel, Darling, in which its man-child narrator retreats from a clusterfuck of Southern familial terrors into the guilty solace of his first sexual encounter—a cow appropriately named Darling. Similarly coded into the brainstem of Head, fear and sex are often never far from each other. In this sense, Tester’s written world is most often about survival: fear may save its characters, and sexual drive might recreate them. Plumbing two such loaded, primal impulses so hard to express with the required subtlety, Tester mostly succeeds, producing a potent strain of neurotica rife with silent anxieties, sexual pinpricks, the screaming sins inside its characters’ heads. It’s his prose that pulls this off: as if able to drop a stone in water and select only certain rings rippling out, Tester’s spare, odd sentences reveal sympathetic vibrations in small miracles of sensual detail.
The trajectories of Head‘s characters range from Florida swampland to New York City, a stint across Europe, then back to the States. In the opening story, “Wet,” the young narrator and his brother are forced by their stepfather to lay barbed wire over a Florida swamp during a thunderstorm. Menace digs its heels into the muck of its surroundings, where “everything is sweaty or bites or is dying.” It’s an appropriate starting point. Later, in one of the New York stories, “Where the Dart Ended,” just before two girls ditch the narrator and his friend in a bar, one extends a “small pink palm full of LSD, in blotter tabs, stamped tiny faces on paper, Mighty Mouse, dozens of bright smiling cartoons.”
“Whoa!” his friend says, seeing the rows of little faces: “I know these guys. These little guys are friends of mine.”
You’d warn them then and there. But by now you know Tester’s people all too well.