At the Washington Writers Conference coming up in May, I’ll be moderating a panel with four local authors whose debut books made it to publication through very different paths. Each book is also a different genre — memoir/journalism, biography, novel, and short story collection — which means I’m reading four very different books to prepare for the panel.
The short story collection, Don’t Wait to Be Called, is by Jacob R. Weber. Publication resulted from Weber’s winning the annual fiction prize given by Washington Writers’ Publishing House, a non-profit small press that publishes authors from the Baltimore/Washington area. Weber’s roots, which are on display in his stories, hedge towards the Baltimore end of that geography.
Weber’s biography reads like someone who has lived a few different lives, as a Marine, a translator, and an English tutor to adult immigrants, as well as a waiter and a retail clerk and manager. His experiences infuse his stories in fully authentic ways, and are rendered in voices that are unique to each story.
The title of the collection comes from its final, wrenching story, “Dogs and Days Don’t Wait to Be Called,” which is also one of four stories in the collection that highlights the experiences of Eritreans fleeing their home country in hopes of something better than slow starvation. The escape is arguably as bad or worse than staying put, because of the high risk of becoming a hostage of the ruthless Rashaida, who “were like grizzly bears feeding off the salmon run of the Eritrean exodus,” as protagonist Daud notes in the story “Silver Spring.” He lost one and a half fingers to the Rashaida’s favorite method for hurrying the twenty thousand dollar ransom payments: making hostages shriek on phone calls to family members.
Weber’s ability to create fully realized protagonists in distinctly different voices and personas is one of the great joys of the collection. We have no idea who we’re going to hear from next, whether it’s a black high school kid from the projects writing about the Freddy Grey riots in the journal given to him by his earnest teacher from the suburbs, or a young widowed mother desperate just to enjoy one Sunday afternoon with her son, however pitched the battle of wills. The mediocre student in “Mr. Sympathy” decides to become a math whiz to make his dying father finally proud of him.
Chase, the protagonist in “Brokedick,” is a former active-duty Marine tortured by not having been as active as his buddies who went downrange; he earns his shot at redemption whether he feels he has or not. In contrast, the obtuse narrator of “Dawn Doesn’t Disappoint” ends up self-satisfied in a better spot than he started, having learned nothing, and without ever getting the punch in the nose or knee to the groin that he so richly deserves. Life, as we know, isn’t fair in ways that run on a sliding scale from miniscule to unendurable.
In this collection, the top end of that scale plays out most strongly in the example of the two unnamed characters that appear in both “Silver Spring” and “Dogs and Days Don’t Wait to Be Called”. Daud and Helen in the former story, and Hiwet, the pregnant young woman in the latter, have all run afoul of the same two torturers in the Rashaida desert camp. One is fittingly ugly and deformed, but the other is strikingly handsome. “Hiwet had time to wonder why he was raping girls in the Sinai, when he could have been charming them on television.” Daud names him Gallantandregal, and notes that he is the most brutal enforcer among them. Gallantandregal enjoys his job, gets paid well for it, and has an endless stream of refugees to choose from. It’s almost certain that he and his ilk are still at it today.
Unjust? You bet. Jacob Weber’s stories capture life as it is, in which there aren’t always good guys and bad guys, and even when there are, the bad guys don’t always get what’s coming to them. It doesn’t matter, though; Weber makes you want to read about them all.
Note: While you’re waiting for Don’t Wait to Be Called to download to your e-reader or show up in your mailbox, you’ll want to check out Weber’s short story, “Directions, Partially Step-by-Step,” which appeared in the January 8th edition of Drunk Monkeys.