>Because We Are Here, by Chuck Wachtel

> This is an engaging collection of stories and novellas by the talented Chuck Wachtel. What makes it engaging is that it’s different. The characters are offbeat (way offbeat in some cases), they do odd things, and the stories are either without focus or Wachtel is a lot smarter than I am (I’ve worked with him and am pretty sure this is the case) and I just don’t get it. Neither is particularly a good thing in short stories, but the quirkiness, in my view, makes up for a lot.

We begin with “St. Ralphie,” about a guy (a regular guy with a store and an ex-wife and an employee he sleeps with) who is out golfing one day and is made invisible when he is struck by lighting. Invisible? At first I figured the guy was just incinerated by the jolt, but, not, he’s still there, talking to his buddy Eugene, trying to explain the whole thing. “Things have changed . . . but it’s okay,” he says. Ralphie discovers that not only is he invisible but he can travel by thinking, and so he goes to watch his daughter get the news.

And then there’s “Sleeping Beauty,” about the woman who falls on a buzzsaw and is cut in half but then reconnected and is now in the hospital. “Larry,” she says, “I’ve been so afraid,” as if the whole thing is a metaphor for her fear—except she says it while lying in her hospital bed recovering.

“One Week” is interesting because it features Joe the Engineer. Wachtel says this story is something of a prequel to his novel Joe the Engineer. But I think my favorite story in the collection is the last: “The Beginning of the End of the Cold War,” in which Nazzarino Jacobs is under pressure—from family, in which his daughter is going to Italy with his ex-wife; from work, where he’s in a tough labor negotiation; from life, where he “is searching the heavens for a neutron bomb.” And that’s before he has a blow-out on the Williamsburg Bridge and has to hope someone will stop to help.

All good stuff, and I’m looking forward to delving into Wachtel’s other works.

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