Sunday
May032015

Wasp Box

By Jason Ockert


 

Panhandler Books
February 2015
978-0991640409


Reviewed by Maria Burns


 

Jason Ockert's first novel sets a swift pace with its opening scene: a delirious soldier throws himself from a moving train and discovers, with a mixture of wonder and dread, that his body has become a house for wasps. From this moment, the novel never lets go its vice grip.

Told in short chapters and with the kind of succinct language few authors master, Wasp Box centers on eighteen-year old Hudson and his thirteen-year old half-brother Speck (Joshua). The two travel to stay with Hudson's wayward biological father, Nolan, at the Muller Vineyard in the Finger Lakes region of Upstate New York. The boys arrive by train just in time for the Fourth of July and local wine festival, where Hudson meets the lovely but socially-detached Madison, granddaughter of the vineyard's owner, Gus. Hudson quickly learns that Gus's wife, a World War II aviator (Women Airforce Service Pilots: WASP), committed suicide five years prior. Local gossip and Madison's bandaged wrist hint that the Muller family continues to struggle with its tarnished past.

Just as readers might suspect they may not hear from the soldier again, Hudson and Speck explore a patch of woods just past the Muller Vineyard. Here Speck finds the soldier's leather-bound journal. These journal entries tell a story of a sharpshooter stationed in Afghanistan's province of Nuristan; he's so desperate for home that he and his tracker trap a rare monkey to secure a ticket home. Speck reads the journal voraciously: "There is something familiar about the world in the diary that he just can't quite pin down. There's a thrill in thinking that the book has been written, somehow, specifically for him to read." It's hard not to have the same thrill while reading Ockert's novel, whose relatively small cast of characters feels ubiquitous in their daily concerns.

Speck is especially in need of the kind of attachment the journal provides, since Hudson is often absent, wooing Madison or working. Speck has witnessed a tragic accident back home and is still trying to cope. The boy is the key to the wasp mystery, but, tragically, he's too young to recognize this fact: "If someone would only ask, the boy could explain that the insects were making people and animals go mad." While the setting is beautifully wrought in Wasp Box, the world grows smaller as the wasps move in, stealthily and with the kind of organization the human characters can't seem to muster. Like the soldier, Speck is attacked by the malicious black and red wasps "as big as hummingbirds," and the remainder of the novel shows the boy dealing with his painful and grotesque injuries.

Wasp Box deftly weaves interpersonal complexity with the wasp infestation. Though Hudson and Nolan make an effort to reconnect, it's clear the relationship—marked more by Nolan's absence than anything else—might be strained beyond repair. Before the boy's trip, Hudson's mother warns, "You're old enough to discover for yourself what a lousy man your father is." And Nolan is certainly rough around the edges, an alcoholic chain smoker who vacillates between genuine paternal concern and reliance on old habits. While on his long drives, Nolan "often pretended his son was sitting by his side. It's his way of practicing the real thing." But just at the point when the novel offers hope for this relationship, Hudson and Nolan have a violent conflict.

To make matters worse, Hudson goes to work for a man named James Crowley, or "just Crowley," as he insists. Crowley turns out to be the "most despicable person [Hudson] has ever met," and he only grows more menacing as the novel progresses. During Hudson's first day on the job erecting drywall, Crowley "ranted about foreigners, made racial slurs, debased the government, and told crass child molestation jokes." Crowley abuses his disabled mother, stealing animals from her glass menagerie that were given to her by her deceased son. He also makes overt sexual advances towards Hudson.

Several of the chapters begin with an epigraph that offers unsettling information about various species of wasps. In other texts, this kind of interruption in the narrative might not work, but in Ockert's capable hands, with his uncanny sense of timing, these epigraphs and the novel's plot combine for an exotic and altogether chilling effect: "The queen will climb carefully through the netting of hair and, leading with soft, unassuming, anesthetic bites, nestle into her ear canal and deposit what looks like a teaspoonful of tapioca pudding…The head is an incubator filled with more than enough protein upon which the insects will ravenously feast." These creatures—whether physically through the plot or the multifarious distractions of the characters, have a way of infiltrating every page of this book.

Knowing the wasps' modus operandi, then, the novel only needs to offer a suggestion of what chaos will unfold in the last chapters: "Nolan had no idea that leaning in so close to Pepper [the dog] and scratching so hard will dislodge the queen and knock her onto his shirt collar."

Ockert's style is clean and concise. There's not much fluff here, but there are moments of real beauty that blend the vineyard landscape with the story. Of the ripening grapes, the novel reads, "In time, all wanderers must settle. That robust skin will sag and shrivel. Things will sour. And as months pass and the cold earth claims the tired remains, will the grape remember the sweet times huddling in the bunch?" Wasp Box offers a glimpse of a group of strangers—even brothers Hudson and Speck must discover their relationship anew—bunched together, as it were, in times both sour and sweet.

And for all of its clever construction, this story is ultimately an examination of character, of individual lives pushed to the very limit of psychological strength. For those interested in a stunning plot that expertly encapsulates both the darkest and redeeming aspects of human existence, Wasp Box is worth the read.