Look Out for Hydrophobia by Betsy Wing. Birch Lane Press: 233 pages: $17.95.
"Something wild was flying at the bright door. It gave a whoop and suddenly moulting burst out of the dark thing on its body and then he could see clearly just as it took off in the golden light naked and pure, it was his girl yelling like Tarzan, diving into the deep end."
The bright images from Betsy Wing's stories stay in your mind: a mother possum and all her tiny, tiny, pink babies play dead. A man zealously guards his fire hydrant against dog pee. An elderly widow considers sex. A dance teacher--smelling of perfume, smoke, and bourbon--radiates pleasure and energy. A young girl bursts from her red wool swimsuit and the bonds of young ladyhood to become a champion swimmer.
Wing's stories themselves are champion swimmers. Laughing, they dive off the highest board, cut the water and playfully skim the very bottom of the deep end.
In the eleven pieces contained in "Look Out for Hydrophobia," Wing snaps with photographic detail shaky suburban hippie-yuppies, reticent fishermen, would-be capitalists, and those at the gates of adolescence or some other can't-go-home-again point.
Each looks for a purer world, a more defined self. Sometimes they seem to be inspecting beautiful flowers to learn their parts. Other times they, bitter or curious, look under rocks at the cruddy, wormy side of life. Each story is a finished portrait, except for the last story, a novella. In this tale of stormy weather and emotions, Wing whips from one set of characters to another barely connected group as if she's spinning the radio knob to find a good station.
Wing's style is clear, and she presses her bright and vivid scenes nearly flat, to the point of surreality. In our roles as intimate observers, we float in the watery atmosphere of characters' minds as they explore, search. Water is Wing's consistent metaphor in which her characters swim like tropical fish. Her stories that incorporate this loaded symbol deal with depth, sex, freedom, and the unconscious.
But Wing hints throughout the work that "water" can be stormy, dark or dangerous. Danger lurks in dark, swampy corners. In one story, a duck wobbling on rotting legs foreshadows tragedy.
In the title story, a woman with a suffocating marriage lives across the street from a crematorium whose soot pervades the neighborhood. Characters such as Karen, who is left on an island as part of one of those character-building survival camps, finds that the shore can wash up sustenance or death. All the character in the world does not stop unexpected outside forces.
People in Wing's stories barter the material and the spiritual, considering and weighing the baggage of life and deciding what to carry further, what to leave, and what to trade. Sometimes the decision is dangerous. Like the floating ashes, the danger in these stories hovers invisibly; death is always waiting, ready to suprise people from behind, tapping shoulders with smoky black fingers. Even Wing's most lighthearted stories take quick turns into the darker, deeper pools of life.
But danger often means epiphany. If scary situations have no divine purpose in life, they do in stories. Betsy Wing's stories are introspections. Take a rock from the bottom of a river and have a good look under it. What you find is what you find.