SOME guys just can't win. At least not in "My Chaos Theory," Steve Watkins' intriguing and exasperating debut short-story collection. The 12 tales range from the darkly comic to the just plain dark, each with boys and men as their protagonists, though who's the grown-up isn't necessarily a matter of age. They're dopes and dopers, wannabe saints, willful sinners, clueless dreamers and ne'er-do-wells. The thing they have in common: the girls and women who bring change -- and chaos -- into their lives.
Take "Bocky-Bocky," in which Sam, a newly widowed father, is losing control over his teenage daughters. Out for a morning run on the beach, he comes across a drowned man. You get an inkling of where we're headed when, instead of being fearful or horrified, Sam is thrilled by his find. He's so eager for recognition for his discovery that he refuses to leave the corpse. Instead he waits for a lifeguard to arrive and, to while away the time, arranges the dead man in a yoga pose. Sam and the dead man are resting side by side in the sand, eyes closed in the Corpse Pose, when Uma Thurman jogs by.
Sam hears some world-class cursing, then "hyperventilation she choked off when he opened his eyes and sat up. She backed away stumbling as if she was going to faint into the surf, and Sam said, 'Wait. Wait. I'm not dead. Just him.' "
It gets weirder. So much so that, as the actress joins Sam on the sand and twists the dead man into a series of advanced poses, you wonder whether Watkins has heard from Uma's people.
The same sensibility shows up in "A Jelly of Light," an odd little story about Bud, a divorced father, whose narcoleptic girlfriend falls asleep each time they try to have sex. His teenage daughter, meanwhile, is having sex -- lots of sex -- with a boy Bud can't stand. He gets even with the kid by taking him up in a tiny plane and doing aerobatics until the boyfriend vomits.
You get into more somber territory with "Family of Man," where Watkins makes us feel the heat and hopelessness in a failed agriculture project in Africa. "The young men sink pipe for two hours after the divination. Christoph directs, but he left his hat at the house earlier, and his ears and nose redden as the sun burns higher and bleaches the land of color. The desert world fuses into shades of white in the afternoon, and Christoph's eyes ache from trying to judge distance and form without the air of shadows."
It's when Watkins calms down, drops from the strenuously quirky stratosphere and deals with plain old life that the collection really takes off. In a pair of thoughtful stories about young men struggling with the responsibilities of fatherhood -- "Ice Age" and "Painting the Baby's Room" -- Watkins shines. His stripped-down style of writing and minimalist approach to plot steer clear of easy epiphanies. Instead, he gives us honest and sometimes devastating emotion.
Watkins, who teaches writing at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia, has diverse interests. In addition to working as an advocate for abused children and teaching yoga, he's also the author of "The Black O: Racism and Redemption in an American Corporate Empire," published in 1997, about one of the largest employment discrimination class-action lawsuits in U.S. history.
All along, in between teaching and advocacy and raising a family, Watkins has been writing short fiction. The stories in "My Chaos Theory" move from Africa and India and Texas to seaside New York and the small-town Deep South. But for all the fine writing and finely drawn characters, for all the scary, sad, exotic and just plain nutty circumstances, the stories don't quite jell. You bump from one to the next, adrift somehow, and wonder why.
Check the copyright page and there's a nice list of literary journals where the stories were first published. More than nice, really. "Driver's Ed," a poignant piece about a teenager hoping to steal a car and move to Los Angeles, debuted in the Greensboro Review. "Critterworld," about three boys plotting to kill an ancient elephant in the roadside zoo of their rural Florida town, was first published in the Mississippi Review and won a Pushcart Prize. But 20 years separate the first story from the most recent, a good chunk of time that makes the seemingly haphazard arrangement of the collection feel like a missed opportunity. If the stories were in chronological order, we might see the writing develop, see the themes change, hear how differently the characters talk and move and think. Watkins' evolution as a writer could have been a story of its own and turned 12 separate pieces into more than the sum of their parts. *