THE MAN WHO LOVED LEVITTOWN. By W.D. Wetherell. University of Pittsburgh Press. 144 pp. $12.95.
YOU REALIZE what I had to do to get this place?" the tough-talking narrator states in the title story of this fine new collection, winner of the University of Pittsburgh's 1985 Drue Heinz Literature Prize for short fiction. "I'm just out of the Army. Two kids, twins on their way, a wife who's younger than I am, just as naive, just as crazy hopeful. We're living in the old neighborhood with my folks four to a room. All along I've got this idea. Airplanes . . . Ever since I'm a kid I'm good with machines, what I do is figure I'll get a job making them."
This is exactly the way nearly all of W. D. Wetherell's characters operate. They make up their minds to do something; then they set out to do it. Ad though they're as hard- luck an assortment of workingmen and itinerants and derelicts as I've encountered in recent fiction, there isn't an ounce of self- pity among them.
In "The Man Who Loved Levittown," a cocky young World War II veteran named DiMaria buys a tract house on Long Island for $83 down. He lands a job making airplanes (pumping gas nights to pay the mortgage), raises a family, and wakes up one morning 32 years later to find himself a widower with his kids grown up and gone. One by one, most of his old friends die or pull up stakes and head south to Florida; but even as their places are snatched up by a new breed of young whippersnappers with whom he has absolutely nothing in common, DiMaria stubbornly refuses to leave. In time some of the more mean-spirited newcomers try to force him out, playing every dirty trick in the book on him from deliberately running over his dog to reporting him to the electric company for fixing his meter. Characteristically, when he can't fight back any longer, DiMaria burns down the home he worked so hard for so that no one else will get it. Not all readers will agree with his solution, but it's impossible not to admire his hard-headed refusal to be pushed too far.
If despair and ennui are the salient spiritual conditions of our times, Wetherell's characters haven't heard the bad news yet. When their backs are to the wall, and sometimes even when they aren't, these people get mad and lash out. They do outrageous things on the spur of the moment. They take all kinds of risks, from which they emerge sadder and quite often wiser. "It's a funny job," the chairman of a small New England fair in a story called "Nickel a Throw" tells Gooden, who agrees to sit in the dunking booth. "It changes a man being up there." The chairman is right. Aware of a strange new power, Gooden begins to bait customers from the security of his lofty perch above the lighted village green. Soon his taunts become outright insults. "Wife beater!" he accuses a beefy-looking, good-natured man. "Poisoner of the air," he shouts at his own boss, the owner of the local factory. "You fired Henry Waite because he suggested putting in pollution controls on stack number five."
Sparse at first, the line at the dunking booth gradually extends into a surreal queue stretching to the very end of the village. In it appear Gooden's dead parents and finally, in an awful moment, his beautiful and devoted wife. "Thank you very much," he tells each in turn as they respond to his cruel accusations by dumping him into a tub, from which he finally emerges "gasping, whimpering, warned."
A bitterly disillusioned black drifter named Rufus, a frequenter of bus station waiting rooms and library reading rooms, experiences a similar epiphany in "Why I Love America." Although he can barely read his own name, Rufus undertakes to teach two Asian immigrants to read and write English in order to spend the winter in a warm building. His ultimate insight about his own place in America is as grim as it is ironic. So is that of an earnest young anti-war activist in "North of Peace," who learns a lesson about the relative value of peace from a dreadfully impoverished rural Vermont mother.
ANYONE who's read Wetherell's collection of lyrical personal essays, Vermont River, knows that this author's own vision isn't unrelievedly bleak. At times he can be very funny, as he is in my favorite story in the collection, "The Bass, the River, and Sheila Mant," which begins with this marvelous sentence and just keeps getting better: "There was a summer in my life when the only creature that seemed lovelier to me than a largemouth bass was Sheila Mant."
Like his feisty, stubborn, unpredictable characters, W.D. Wetherell takes a good many chances in his stories. Some work better than others. Two or three are diffuse or read like early drafts. "Narrative of the Whale ruck Essex," for instance, starts out promisingly with an outfit of nondescript showmen barnstorming the country with a live whale in a 45-foot glass tank; but before it gathers a head of steam, the tale sputters out in a series of choppy reminiscences. Fortunately, these stories are exceptions. As a collection, The Man Who Loved Levittown is both original and highly entertaining. Wetherell's characters may be losers, but they're battlers, with a cranky dignity that sets them sharply apart from the spoiled whiners, quitters, and self-indulgent identity-seekers so frequently encountered in today's increasingly anemic fition.