Restraint is hard to come by in Las Vegas; just go to any gate at McCarron International and people-watch. Today’s bright-eyed passengers surging from the jetway, filled with the certainty that their big score is just over the horizon, are tomorrow’s dead-eyed downtrodden, shame and humiliation blanketing their faces, some of their innocence chipped away. It’s not easy to leave Sin City with your dignity intact.
Some people, like Nick Danze, don’t even try. Protagonist of David Philip Mullins’s story collection Greetings from Below, Nick is shame incarnate, and being in his world for nine stories is like a two-week vacation in his desert hometown—exhausted, we leave with the sense that we’ve stayed too long and seen too much.
Greetings from Below is, in essence, about two people’s desperate attempts to compensate for the loss of a man whose life and death looms like a shadow over the entire collection. After Jack Danze dies, Nick and his mother Elizabeth both develop obsessions and fetishes that will never fill the void he leaves behind. Nick’s are sexual—voyeurism, feet, Asian women, the obese, the middle-aged, the sexual stimulation of his dog’s “slippery red baster of a penis”—all of which keep him from embracing his relationship with his girlfriend (later wife) Annie. In the words of Montaigne, read to Nick by one of his empty conquests, “The soul discharges its passions on false objects when the true are wanting.”
At the same time, Nick isn’t nearly as accepting of his mother’s coping mechanisms. He constantly chastises Elizabeth for her compulsive shopping, gambling, and her cringe-inducing need to “drink” pure cane sugar. That Nick sees himself in his mother’s obsessions is clear, even to him, and the punishments he doles out to her are really punishments meant for himself. The difference between Nick and Elizabeth is that while the latter steeps herself in denial, Nick is possessed of “an intimate affiliation with guilt but a slumbering sense of moral responsibility.”
He’s a detached observer of his own moral decay. It’s almost like Nick is reading this collection over our shoulder, shaking his head in disbelief. His guilt and shame are palpable, especially when it comes toAnnie, who is nothing but supportive of him. Over the years she gives him several opportunities to leave the relationship, which he knows for her sake is the right thing to do, but Nick can never bring himself to drop the axe. While on a drive together in the story “True Love Versus the Cigar-Store Indian,” Annie tells Nick that she’s growing tired. She’s handing him an exit visa, almost begging him to take it. But when she asks if theirs is a true love, Nick says yes—an outright lie. The explosion never comes.
This is typical of Nick over the course of the collection. Missed opportunities, climaxes that never come, like that big score just over the horizon for Vegas visitors. Anytime there is a chance for Nick’s track to change, Mullins refrains from throwing the switch. And it works well. As a storm approaches in “Arboretum,” fourteen-year-old Nick is about to be sodomized by his friend Kilburg in the desert outside the city. Kilburg lost his leg below the knee to diabetes, and just as he’s about to force Nick into the act, Nick kisses the boy’s stump. Kilburg, self-conscious about his missing limb, aborts the encounter just as the storm clouds dissipate. One wonders what might’ve happened to the course of Nick’s life had the act been completed.
Similarly, in “Longing to Love You,” 23-year-old virgin Nick visits an Asian masseuse while his relationship with Annie is burgeoning. He wants to knock one out before their first encounter, but when the masseuse asks Nick to tell her that he loves her, Nick withdraws. Later he loses his virginity to Annie, but even during the act he’s already begun thinking of her platonically, considering a future together with “sexual desire replaced by the comfort of long-term commitment.” It’s clear that this relationship is doomed from the very beginning, and although we hope that Annie will find a way out, in the words of Nick’s father, “You can’t put toothpaste back in the tube.” Would Nick have wasted twenty years of Annie’s life had he consummated with the masseuse? Would it have ended years later in “First Sight” if the man Annie was cheating with had in fact brought down the bat he was wielding over Nick’s windshield, instead of letting it drop and walking away?
The restraint Mullins shows in these scenes is very un-Vegas-like, and is the mark of a writer more interested in inner forces than outer. Nick’s change must come from within, but he’s crippled by his own demons, unaccustomed to being “anything but biddable” by them.
The central question in Greetings from Below is from where do these demons come? Mullins answers this in the final story, taking us back to an encounter fourteen-year-old Nick has with his father, wherein Nick delivers a crushing line that illuminates everything that has come before. What Nick says to his father is heartbreaking, and, as we know by this point, an outright lie.
But lie is what he does best. To Annie, to his mother, to almost everyone he encounters during the years following Jack’s death. “A lie,” he says, “seems less hurtful than the truth.”
The one person he never lies to is himself, a self “heartless and disturbed,” “contemptible,” full of “general wretchedness.” Just the kind of person whose feelings you wouldn’t want to spare.
David Duhr is fiction editor at The Texas Observer and Fringe Magazine. His writing has appeared in Publishing Perspectives, Gulf Coast, Pleiades, and others. He is co-founder of WriteByNight in Austin.