‘There Is Happiness’ collection recalls the greatness of writer Brad Watson

Middle-aged men filled with regret and the women they disappointed populate short story collection.
"There is Happiness" is a posthumous collection of new and select short stories by the late Brad Watson. (Courtesy of Nell Hanley)

Credit: Nell Hanley

Credit: Nell Hanley

"There is Happiness" is a posthumous collection of new and select short stories by the late Brad Watson. (Courtesy of Nell Hanley)

There is something enchanting about being immersed in Brad Watson’s stories, and it isn’t just the compelling use of magical realism he uses to soften life’s melancholy. After the Mississippi native’s unexpected death in 2020, his editor of 26 years, Alane Salierno Mason, penned a tribute on the website Lit Hub that summed up Watson’s ability to crawl inside the human experience: “He wrote like a composer, every note held for just the right amount of time to make it music.”

In Watson’s posthumously published collection of unconnected stories “There Is Happiness,” his archetype of the aching and empty middle-aged man filled with regret didn’t entirely get to finish telling his story. And the end result sings.

Watson’s tales share a handful of themes and one is the women who grace his pages. They can be unstable and tend to aid his men in their demise, such as the femme fatale he introduces in “Dying for Dolly.” The opening story is about a man named Marlon who tours with Dolly Parton after his prison release.

Marlon’s wife, Charlotte, sets him up when Dolly won’t hire Charlotte as a backup dancer. With sardonic humor, Marlon recounts the experience from another stint in a jail cell — his only access to Dolly now the drag show “the gay boys” in the cellblock put on.

Watson’s stories that aren’t about middle-age are still on theme, if the theme is Brad Watson’s life. As author Joy Williams writes in the collection’s introduction, “He fathered a child and got married when he was but a junior in high school. It seemed he was always getting married and fathering a son and getting divorced.”

The longest and meatiest of the tales, “Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives,” is about a high-school couple who get pregnant and embark on various simulations of their perfect futures as their reality disintegrates. It’s left unanswered if these simulations are from an alien encounter or episodes that occur in a mental health facility. That vagueness is the point in this haunting story that lingers long after the next narrative commences.

Watson’s men tend to be loners. They are frequently divorced after being abandoned by women who are sick of putting up with them. More than a few men in these 18 tales are drunks who go fishing. One is about a woman who drowns while her husband is fishing. And as with Marlon, they are often bewitched by sex to their detriment.

(Courtesy of Norton)

Credit: Handout

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Credit: Handout

A common thread that runs through Watson’s men are their animals. The author dips into their point of view, and the depictions are not for the faint of heart. “The Zookeeper and the Leopard” is a riveting excerpt from a novel-in-progress filled with trepidation. A zookeeper slinks around the zoo at night opening animal cages to inflict revenge on the Chief Animal Control Officer for having an affair with his wife.

Tension jumps off the page as the zookeeper fantasizes about the impact of releasing the leopard on the town’s domestic animal population. But when Watson flips to the leopard’s perspective as he devours the zookeeper, the sensory immersion that sets his writing apart truly shines: “(H)is long-cultivated hatred of the zookeeper compelled him to crack open the skull and devour the brain with relish. After raking out the viscera he ate the heart, but the liver was fouled.”

Watson is on the side of the animals, but that doesn’t mean the animals in his stories are treated well. “Terrible Argument” is darkly hilarious, thanks to a comical depiction of a dysfunctional couple with a history of extreme fighting who have adopted a shelter dog. The tension ratchets up when an acquaintance gives the man a gun for his birthday and the couple fight over control of the weapon.

The result of the gun grapple is brilliant. But switching to the dog’s perspective introduces a heartbreaking dimension. The pup is miserable living with this couple who love fighting more than each other. She wants to run away but remembers the shelter isn’t better. Watson’s heart-rending depiction of her despair is enough to remind any dog owner to shut the door before arguing with their partner.

Overwhelmingly, Watson’s men are united by cruelty. In “Uncle Willem,” a neurodiverse man has a breakdown after he is tricked in a practical joke. In “Eykelboom” an abused boy magically fuses with the forest to survive. But perhaps the rawest story is “Apology,” about a tired alcoholic who is filled with regret at the end of his life. There is a little bit of the aching loneliness present in each of Watson’s characters delivered in this rousing mea culpa on the nature of man:

“I’m sorry for shouting and throwing things, drunk. For wanting you more often when you were skinny than when you were not. For (making love to) you the same old way for about 15 years. I was a monster in my pretty skin, two or three thousand years of age, stumbling and grumbling through my 20s and 30s.”

Brad Watson’s posthumous collection of stories is sad, poignant and desolate. And still it makes you laugh. He nailed the human experience and is a writer who is deeply missed.


“There is Happiness: New and Selected Stories”

by Brad Watson

Norton, 304 pages, $29.99