You'd Be a Stranger, Too

By Weston Cutter

October 2010
264 pages


Reviewed by Nick Kocz


Seven pages into "Jump Night," a story midway through Weston Cutter’s debut collection, You’d Be a Stranger, Too, we’re introduced to "an imaginary ur-Harrison resident named Weston Cutter."  Reporters insert him into newspaper articles to provide color.  They joke about the state of his supposedly sunburnt ass and float rumors that he might run for mayor. "Did Weston ever lose the weight he put on right after his high school girlfriend died?" one asks. "Does he still think about the time he swallowed his goldfish in third grade, and does he still remember the goldfish’s name was Tully?" another asks. Mostly though, they wonder if he’s ever "finally going to leave Harrison."

The real Cutter is as hard to peg.  Many of the stories take place in Harrison, a fictional Minnesota city.  Cutter is pitch-perfect in his realistic depictions of small town life. However, he’s equally adept at handling other kinds of story:  "Model for a Square" masquerades as a museum catalogue entry; the sci-fi-ish "Nowhere Times" charts the probability of babies appearing "bullrushed" along the riverbanks, Moses-like; in "Anything But Portugal," a down-on-his-luck comic attempts to auction off the rights to his name.

As stylistically disparate as these stories are, two things unite them.  The first is Cutter’s lyrical romanticism for past loves, childhood memories and the music of a favorite band that has long since disbanded.  Regret is the stuff of Cutter’s fiction. 

The protagonists are mostly males in their late twenties or thirties, romantically unattached and wondering why that might be.  They’re adrift, working jobs that lead nowhere.  For fun, they drink beer and root for the Minnesota Twins and take practice swings at the batting cages and build tree houses and jump off bridges. They’re keenly aware that they’re drifting fast into that most chronicled of fictional types: deadbeat alcoholic loser-hood.

The collective "we" voice Cutter employs in "Go Away, Come Back, I’m Yours," best exemplifies this:

Most of us… knew that every decision had its own ache and some choices got carried to the grave as flubbed half solutions to problems that wouldn’t ever unknot, no matter what… What we were all thinking was how suddenly it is seven years later all the time and you can’t get back to anywhere because an old love letter is not a map no matter how many times it’s folded and refolded and read and felt.

Another "we" narrator sums up a romantic relationship thusly:

We’d met in Connecticut, both of us on business, and our tensions included a flat tire and the offer of a lift; a (what seemed at the time, anyway) mysterious and magnetic shared affection for salt and vinegar popcorn; the color yellow as it appeared in certain paintings by Klee; childhood imaginary friends with names beginning with the letter P.  These things, like music, had seemed enough at the time.

It’s heart-breaking, this once solid world that keeps sliding away from us.

"Rhymes with Tux," the standout story of the collection, finds Catherine Mulligan "twenty-six and toothachey and on her way home for a three-day temperate June weekend to visit her dad." Her father, who may have Alzheimer’s, is the proprietor of a failing swimwear shop. When he hugs her, "He felt somehow slight against her soft—full, with a protuberant belly, but loose, as if the lines of his body had morphed from solid to perforated." Embedded within this story, and clocking in at 356 words, is the most beautiful sentence I’ve come across in a long time.  As a child, Catherine and her father made "shooting stars"—perforated tin cans that they’d stuff with newspapers that they’d light on fire.  At night, they’d twirl the shooting stars around on a string and hurl them into a lake.  The super-long sentence takes us from the moment that the match is lit to the moment after "the meteor’s flight, as her father would begin to clap and whoop and cheer, she could swear she heard the hiss of the can as it touched the water, extinguishing itself." Along with the sizzle, we feel the ache.

The other trait identifying these stories as uniquely Cutter’s is his narrative strategy: like his characters’ lives, the narrative thread spools in refreshingly unpredictable directions, often following characters’ thoughts rather than story action.  Where these wide stories begin often has little relationship to where they end—we’re as likely to encounter discussions about the etymology of sardonic and the plural form of "mongoose" (mongeese?  mongooses?) as we are to find traditional plot elements.

In "Toof or Else" a man discovers thousands of fingers cut from leather gloves blowing in the wind while driving home after his girlfriend leaves him. "There were three fingers stuck underneath my windshield wipers, and the wind was quick and furious, even in the dark.  The truck shook on the drive and every mile… I saw more and more fingers tumbling along the road, pointing this way then that." This enthralling finger element is thoroughly developed over the last six pages of this 11-page story. However, one would be hard-pressed to say exactly what the story’s first five pages are about.  Prevailing wisdom is that stories ought to begin in medias res.  Here though, Cutter begins well before the man’s girlfriend dumps him.  The first page is seemingly about nothing: the man feeds his dog, muses about the Phil Collins and Stevie Wonder songs that he can’t get out of his head, and mistakenly eats a sandwich that has been stuffed with newspapers. 

An editor once instructed me to delete all story elements that didn’t contribute towards the story’s conclusion.  He described the story as being the trunk of a tree.  What he didn’t want were branches distracting attention away from the straight-shot of that trunk’s magnificent end.  Years later, I would discover that the editor’s advice was but a reformulation of Poe’s "single effect" theory.

Cutter takes the opposite approach, tossing every conceivable element that a character might be thinking or experiencing into his stories.  This deliberate messiness allows him to thoroughly explore what interests him most: character. 

The characters in these stories are not subservient to plot.  Their minds wander, escaping the narrow confines most writers would enclose them in. Like most of us, they’ve got a good grip on their past but only sketchy thoughts about what their future holds.

Cutter’s stories make me question the necessity of all the "rules" I’ve learned about short story structure over the years.  What, exactly, is so wrong about messiness when the results are as startling as many of these stories? It occurs to me that when you strip a tree bare of its branches, the result is a dead tree.  You’d Be A Stranger, Too pulsates with quirky, unpredictable life.