Call it original sin, or human nature, or whatever you like. Any way you word it, the human race is one of flaws and imperfections. We do everything in our power to present the best versions of ourselves, to bury objectionable motives and actions beneath a barrier of civility. In his debut collection of stories, The Beautiful Wishes of Ugly Men, Adam Prince forces readers to explore this suppressed side of humanity. The characters in his stories are not villains; they are everyday people with their most unsettling thoughts and desires placed beneath a magnifying glass. What’s truly frightening about these stories is that the ugliness of the characters do not make them repulsive. Prince offers these men in a way that demands sympathy. Despite unforgivable faults, it is hard not to identify with these men, even to love them.
Take Ted Asmund- junior high school math teacher, socially awkward thirty-year-old, and inappropriately attracted to a young male student. The story is “Island of the Lost Boys” and begins with Ted fleeing his home in Tempe, Arizona, the morning after he attempted to kiss an adolescent boy on the mouth. Ted seeks shelter at his childhood home in Newport Beach. Without notifying his employers of his absence, Ted spends several days in California trying to clear his head. His environment also leads Ted to reminisce about his childhood, especially about an old friend named Cannon, Ted’s closest friend when he was young and didn’t understand what made him different from his peers. Ted recalls an uncomfortable conversation that underlines his problem:
One night Cannon and Rob were joking about how everything was in their pants. When the girl they’d brought over said she wanted another beer, Cannon said the beer was in his pants. And when the girl said they should put on something else to listen to, Rob said there was something else in his pants.
“Me too,” said Teddy.
“Huh?” asked the girl.
“There’s something else in my pants too. You should see, um, what it is.”
It was the same thing Cannon and Rob had just been saying, but the reaction was entirely different. “John, man,” said the girl- John was Cannon’s first name, and he had just started to use it- “John, man, you’re friend’s getting all creepy on me.”
A difficult and confusing childhood makes Ted an easy target for sympathy. But what always follows the suggestion of Ted being a good person, someone to root for, is a reminder of his perversion. One such reminder comes when he pursues a middle-school soccer player after practice:
“This is the first time Ted has seen his face up close. It is sharp and pimply, a face used to sour expressions like the one it wears now…Up until this point, Ted has been telling himself that his intentions toward the star are entirely pure, that because he is a teacher and has some practice listening to adolescents’ problems, he might listen to this boy’s too. But something about that sour face tells Ted otherwise. Something ugly and accusatory. Something that makes Ted afraid too.”
Though this story changes setting frequently and uses past and present tense almost equally, it is not disorienting and never feels pieced together. The pace is even and natural, only breaking into a sprint or slamming to a stop at pivotal, telling moments.
Part of what makes Prince’s characters likeable in face of their ugliness is that they are intelligent, pensive people. One wonders about “the difficulty of accounting for the distance between who a person was and who that person would like to be, between ourselves and the performances we put on for those we hope will love us.” Another dissects the desire to be young again: “we mean only that we wish we had our young bodies back and maybe our full set of choices, but never our entire young selves, so self-doubting and yet so full speed ahead.”
In “Baby Teeth and Bruises,” a man attends his ex-wife’s funeral where he encounters one of the bridesmaids who he hasn’t seen since the wedding decades ago. They leave for the privacy of a hotel room and get very close to sleeping together. Then, all at once, the man discovers that she is married and that her husband is abusive. Later, he unknowingly meets her husband, and the two men hit it off. The abusive husband is not a terrible guy, at least as long as his wife is not around. The man and the husband watch a baseball game together and form “some distant camaraderie.” While watching WWII films together, they agree that “it was comforting to have such a clear idea about who the good guys were, who the bad guys were.”
The exact opposite feeling- not being able to pinpoint the good guys and the bad guys- is what makes this book unsettling. They don’t make you pick sides, but these stories require critical thinking about what is right and what is wrong. You may be surprised at how often these categories intersect and overlap.
Thomas Michael Duncan lives in Syracuse, NY. His reviews have appeared in Necessary Fiction Reviews, Prick of the Spindle, and Blood Lotus Journal. His online home is tmdwrites.tumblr.com.