When Sat 11/4, 7:30 PM
Where Quimby's 1854 W. North
More With Anne Elizabeth Moore, Pete Coco, Jeb Gleason-Allured, and Kyle Beachy
"I never had a huge accident that put me in the hospital," says Patrick Somerville. "But I feel like I got hurt so many times when I was a kid--minor to midlevel injuries like breaking my arm, breaking my arm another time, broken fingers. I fell off my bike all the time, and I crashed on skis a bunch too. I had this weirdly violent childhood."
For his debut collection of short stories, Trouble, published by Vintage last month as a paperback original, Somerville drew on the knocks and scrapes of his Green Bay upbringing to spin a set of dark, wry stories about guys getting into all kinds of mishaps. Disasters of every degree dog his cast of hapless and frustrated teenagers and men. They crash their bikes and ski into trees, get stuck in chimneys, have inappropriate affairs, and learn how to kill a man with one magical touch. There's a foreboding feel to even the most mundane setting--the looming threat that your life may not actually be remotely in your control.
Somerville, 27, wrote most of the book while getting his MFA at Cornell; in 2003 his "Trouble and the Shadowy Deathblow" appeared in the literary journal One Story, attracting the attention of an agent who sold the collection to Vintage. He didn't set out to write a whole pack of coming-of-age tales, but in effect that's what Trouble is, even though some of his protagonists are well out of their teens. "I think I just developed this thing to do while writing a short story that involved pivot points, often moments of violence," he says. "It works against the problem a lot of the characters have, which is an overestimation of rationality as a means to make a life, or make your life better, or be happy. . . . But then something unplanned comes along and totally throws them off. And most of the characters have no ability to adapt afterward."
After graduating from the University of Wisconsin, Somerville moved to New York in August 2001, hoping his degree in English literature and two-year stint as the poetry editor of the school literary mag would land him a job in publishing. Today he says that even if 9/11 hadn't hit he probably would've had a hard time getting work, but it certainly didn't help the job market for aspiring editorial assistants. So he hunkered down and started writing, waiting tables to pay the bills, and after eight months packed it in to live with his girlfriend in San Francisco. As soon as he got there, though, he learned he'd been accepted at Cornell, where he'd start four months later. He's been in Chicago since the summer of 2005, working as an editor in the admissions office at Northwestern, and this fall he's teaching creative writing at the University of Chicago's Graham School of General Studies.
An avowed atheist, Somerville says he spent a lot of time in college trying to construct a belief system with rationality as its god. But, he says, "I got a little bit older and I realized this is too much, this is not even fun. It's not worth it--it stifles humor and stifles being relaxed about things." It wasn't wasted time, though: that tension between control and release, and the wary acceptance of the inevitability of chance, colors much of Trouble. Some stories treat the subject relatively lightly--in "Puberty," for instance, a sensitive boy furtively draws a mustache on his upper lip with his mom's mascara and gets his nose broken by a basketball, allowing him to finally bond with his befuddled father. In Somerville's best pieces, though, the hand of fate is a lot crueler. "Black Earth, Early Winter Morning" turns on a string of ghastly accidents whose aftereffects are all the harsher as seen through the eyes of Somerville's self-absorbed narrator.
The collection is being touted as a statement on contemporary masculinity, but Somerville winces at being called some sort of "spokesman for all men." Recently he's tried to exert some control over his own environment in a rite of passage perhaps common to a lot of guys. A die-hard Packers fan, he's given up on hitting the bar every Sunday, burned out on the ritual of hanging out with drunks, downing hot wings, and yelling at the TV. "I'm not doing it anymore," he told himself. "I'm getting the dish."