An Apparent Horizon and Other Stories
([PANK] Books, 2021)
After a long year in which focusing has been difficult for many of us, Ricardo Wilson’s debut fiction, An Apparent Horizon and Other Stories, comes at exactly the right time.
Paying attention to every word, no matter how difficult that is right now, is essential to enjoying the plot and empathizing with the characters. Take the opening line of the 100-word story “‘thresh-ˌhōld”: “The day after the planes found the buildings the aliens on the southwest corner of La Cienega and Pico were selling flags with their hot dogs.”
Read such passages too quickly or while part of your mind is occupied with other things, and you might miss a profound statement about a unique form of American alienation; undocumented immigrants knowing they need to pay homage to the flag of a country that routinely abuses them.
The book is a sweeping collection of narratives separated by time and place, but connected by characters trying, and often failing, to flee both the pain of the past and the horrors of the present. Wilson builds fully realized worlds in each story, be it a single paragraph or dozens of pages. The result is a challenging read where race and class are front and center, and they are explored in a way that is both sad and painful, and warm and witty.
The collection’s opening story totals just eight sentences, each one carrying weight and significance. A family departs, fleeing for an unknown destination. They listen to “Climb Ev'ry Mountain” from The Sound of Music—a prelude to the Von Trapp’s escape to Switzerland—while the father thinks of Ishmael Reed’s Flight to Canada. The family’s isolation is evident as the possibility looms that sanctuary might not wait beyond the threshold.
Though seemingly disparate narratives, the stories are thematically connected. In “Crackerasssuckafool,” a freshly hired college faculty member strategically manifests a new medical condition. In a practiced stumble, he falls to the ground, knocking over a monument to a Confederate general. His plan was prompted by an earlier incident in a parking lot, where a local woman doesn’t so much accuse him of kidnapping his own lighter skinned son, as announce that it’s something she has the right to accuse him of.
His defiance is followed up by the college’s half-hearted attempts at combating racism:
Almost a year to the day from his ambush of the general, the university planned an event, a lightly attended open forum to discuss the tepid implementation of only a portion of the recommendations from the Committee on Race and Institutionally Necessary Growth and Engagement. Depending on whom you asked, this was either an earnest undertaking or a cover-your-ass reflex to the events in a nearby town the year prior.
Many readers will recognize these types of neoliberal theatrics, be they in academia or the corporate world. And while the main character (he is never named) does try to initiate change via an extreme method, he does temper that attempt with a more measured approach: simply asking how those half-hearted measures would aid in the retention of Black students and faculty. It seems that neither approach would achieve a satisfactory outcome and reminded me of real-world responses to protests, no matter where they fall on the spectrum; too extreme, too disrespectful, carried at the wrong time or place. In the end, it’s damned no matter what you do—and caught within the center of all that pressure, the main character finds he is succumbing to the very disorder he’d been faking.
That same faculty member and his family vacation in Panama, the setting of “The Death of Sam Brown” in which workers are laboring at the Panama Canal. The title character, a Jamaican man speaking to us from a later date about his time in Panama, is haunted by a spectre of the past. His lighter skin, talents, and ambition played a role in his nominally improved station compared to the lives of the darker skinned men in camp.
Unable to bear the intolerable and increasingly deadly conditions, one worker, Robert, has destroyed company property, a crime that will lead to his hanging if Sam will sign a statement validating false claims against him. He does so, in exchange for a better life, and now is haunted by Robert’s ghost.
I found this to be the most moving, cinematic story of the collection, as Sam Brown, whose abilities and motivation get him far, but only so far, must grapple with the fallout of his own decisions when only bad choices are made available.
Why not haunt the makers of the great canal who sent thousands of us like lame dogs rooting through a maze of rock and mud? One dog limps home to be stuck in a cage and the quarrel is with me? If I would have strung Robert from the gallows myself and waited till he turned from man to corpse, would I, too, have roads and schools in my honour?
I could easily imagine another version of this story, penned by a different writer, where there is no empathy for Sam Brown. At first, I wanted him to do the heroic thing, to stand up to the racist imperialism strangling Panama. But follow that thread; what would happen? Would he hang by the neck in solidarity with his friend? Sam Brown isn’t above reproach, and the text never treats him as such, but his questions are impossible to ignore. Much like the Confederate general in the previous story, the true villains are enshrined for posterity while he is damned.
The benefits and pitfalls of family play a central role in Wilson’s collection. In one of the most brilliantly confounding stories, “Saturday,” a grieving mother, Carol, and sister, Aisha, having once endured a gauntlet of news trucks and vengeful neighbors, must now pick up the remains of their son and brother, Donnie. They haven’t had the time or desire to eat, but then they share a meal at an In-N-Out. At first it seems a warm, serene scene, and to an extent, it is. But later, as they dispose of the ashes, there’s something missing, something unspoken between mother and daughter or an expression of grief submerged beneath the text.
Aisha holds the bag open while her mother fills the hole and folds the loose dirt back in place, flattening it with the underside of the spoon. She then pours the water from her glass over the base of the plant.
Aisha grabs her mother’s hand and mouths a prayer. They both sit on the top step and look out toward the neighborhood. Aisha’s head rests on her mother’s shoulder. Carol is playing in a braid that has come loose on her daughter’s head.
Donnie is practically absent from the story, his name mentioned three times and details about him are scant. This absence rings true, and felt like a reflection of the early days of grief, especially when the person’s death was unanticipated. Later, memories will be shared, pictures cried over, but for now there’s mostly a feeling of emptiness and preoccupation with the day to day. In “Saturday”, I witnessed Carol and Aisha navigating that painful landscape and was able to envision their grief long after the story ended.
This is mirrored in the titular “An Apparent Horizon,” in which environmentalist Mar Gillette’s failed hunger strike has forced her to not only contemplate the loss of her father but finally to eat; she’s been growing a rosemary plant from soil mixed with his ashes.
Pieces of rosemary float to the top, one sticks to her finger and she puts it to her mouth before drinking her father, in essence, as she has these last two years.
In a moment reminiscent of taking communion, she consumes water laced with that same rosemary, and when combined with Mar’s time spent fasting in the desert, Wilson presents a religious journey whose goal is opaque.
It’s never totally clear what Mar was attempting or why, but Wilson makes her zealousness clear. That specific quality combined with her white, upper class privilege blinds her to the danger she is safe from but is nonetheless very real for other people. Such is the danger to which she exposes her family gardener, Teddy. As is often the case in Wilson’s writing, Teddy’s race is never outright revealed, but the condescending way white characters interact with him suggest he’s of Latin American origin pages before a scene reveals him speaking Spanish with his family.
Despite a clear affection for each other, Mar and Teddy filled me with a sense of dread as they seemed to march towards an unseen cliff. At one point, Teddy is outside her gated community home when he’s approached by a security guard.
The officer follows Teddy to the driveway where Mar has already come to the terracotta path.
“What’s the problem?”
“Miss, a resident complained and we are obligated to follow up. There’s no issue. With the construction there’s been some insecurity.”
“I can’t divulge that.”
“Bullshit,” as he starts to speak of company policy.
Mar speaks to the security guard with righteous entitlement, something Teddy might not feel comfortable doing. It demonstrates the chasm between their experiences, and while she may be doing what she feels is best, Mar, who is white, was putting Teddy, who is not, in a situation that could escalate to a lethal end. It’s easy to see how her zealous nature might play out in the future, beyond the confines of her gated community.
Wilson’s prose is engrossing, almost a reverse page-turner. I found myself equally as concerned with where these characters came from as where they’re going. What happened to her? Why is he responding like this? The answers often lie within the context of geography, time, and race, but also the quirks specific to each character.
The collection’s characters often set themselves on trajectories towards destinations they’d not intended, but presented with Wilson’s sparse and evocative writing, I tended to know what was coming before it arrived. I was able to feel the Panamanian humidity and mosquitoes in “The Death of Sam Brown,” anticipate the unrest of 1970 Bed-Stuy in “The Deafman,” and perceive the familial pain in “An Apparent Horizon” long before each was made explicit.
At a time in which many of us are craving both resolution and gratification, Ricardo Wilson’s debut collection presents the opposite. And while the writing in An Apparent Horizon is expertly crafted, the messy reality that it portrays is much closer to how things really are. Life is confusing. Relationships are frustrating. The correct thing to do is elusive. Correction is problematic. Things are opaque and conclusions are difficult to grasp. This is the world of today as in the past; this is An Apparent Horizon.