Watch Me Go establishes Mark Wisniewski as a writer who moves adeptly from the light to the dark, from the quirky, sometimes bizarre comic story to the eerie, unsettling thriller. His previous work—most notably Show Up, Look Good; Confessions of a Polish Used Car Salesman; and All Weekend with the Lights On—contains dark undercurrents suggestive of human frailty, corruption, and evil; in Watch Me Go, Wisniewski's third novel, the darker element dominates throughout.
In his 2011 book On Evil, Marxist critic Terry Eagleton distinguishes evil from wickedness, claiming that latter is absent of metaphysical underpinnings but is explainable, if not pardonable, in social, political, and historical contexts. By using the term “wickedness,” one avoids a word that has become unfashionable in our secular age, “evil” often being associated with the supernatural. If the supernatural enters today’s fiction, it’s likely to be in faith-based novels, fantasy, or horror. But Wisniewski’s novel is firmly entrenched in the realist, literary tradition. If one grants the semantic distinction, then, there is wickedness in Watch Me Go, with its evocative portrayal of human degeneracy, dissoluteness, and decay in the milieu of the horse-racing track.
Wisniewski’s racetrack is dominated by bettors (“grandstanders”), jockeys, and trainers. Infiltrating this visible world is the mob. Jan Price, twenty-two-year-old daughter of a jockey who died before she was born, has had a lifelong dream of becoming a jockey herself. Recently having moved with her mother from Arkansas to New York to stay with the family of her late father’s jockey friend Tom Corcoran, Jan gains a strong sense for the addictive, ruinous nature of racetrack gambling—how it can drive an entire family like Tom’s to live for the winning odds and utterly consume a person’s life, a tragic pattern most notably illustrated in the person of The Form Monger, a man who sports a purple stump of arm, severed by the mob when he went bad on his gambling debts. To be sure, the world of horse racing involves corruption—wickedness—at all levels. “The point,” says Eagleton, “is that most wickedness is institutional. It is the result of vested interests and anonymous processes, not of the malign acts of individuals.” In Watch Me Go, the racetrack is a leviathan, a destructive machine, and we cannot help but see the novel in naturalistic terms. Who, once caught up, can resist its pull? Who once involved, can escape destruction?
The novel is narrated from two different points of view. Through Jan Price, Wisniewski exposes the rot underlying the glitzy, shimmering surface of the racetrack. The horse-racing ethos, it becomes increasingly clear, is equivalent to the drug culture, capable of inducing an emotional high in gamblers when they beat the odds, or fancy they can, but it also guarantees a lock-step descent into chaos and destruction for those who fall into its clutches. In one fell swoop of incisive criticism, Jan zeroes in on the core nature of racetrack life: “What I’m trying to say is that . . . gambling and welshing and debt and vengeful violence have long, long been a way of life around the Finger Lakes racetrack.” This lilting, meditative voice is anything but tame: it goes for the jugular. Beyond her own take on things, Jan also imagines her boyfriend and fellow horse enthusiast, Tug, experiencing, thinking, and feeling. If her omniscience is initially puzzling, we later realize that Tug, victim of a horrible demise, is not able to narrate his own story. Note the lyrical swing in Jan's language—the fine rhythmical, repetitive phrasing—as she comes face to face with a central truth about the Corcorans: “They, the Corcorans, had all been worriers, with nothing ever right in their minds, and nothing good ever trusted as being able to be good. They were wrong. They were wrong. The Corcorans were wrong about that, but they were also just plain wrong about what they did, and in how they conducted themselves.”
“Deesh,” the novel's second narrator, is a young African American man who was once a basketball star in the Bronx. His link to the racetrack milieu is tangential and yet significant: seeking employment, he’s unintentionally guilty of disposing of a forty-gallon drum containing human remains; thus Wisniewski’s thriller begins. Fleeing from the law, Deesh racks up one false criminal charge after another. The cancer of poverty and injustice spreads into his life; because of his class and race, he is an easy mark. In hard-hitting, lean prose, Wisniewski gives us a voice quite different from Jan’s plaintive, ruminative one, hammering out in staccato sentences Deesh’s adrenaline rush as he seeks safety and asylum: “Under me, brakes hiss. We are backing up onto the street. We stop. We ease ahead, make a left.”
Jan, privy to facts about Deesh’s innocence, hears out his story as the novel progresses—and the reader wonders whether she’ll prove touched enough by Deesh's candor to go to battle for him. Can love finally triumph over contemporary racism, hatred, treachery, and deceit? Like many great novels, Wisniewski’s shows that compassionate love, as unpredictable as it can sometimes be, is the most fitting answer to human corruption and menace. A masterwork of technique, theme, and style, Watch Me Go will stay with readers long after they’ve put the book down.
Jack Smith’s stories, reviews, and articles have appeared widely. He is the author of Hog to Hog, winner of the George Garrett Fiction Prize, and Icon, both satirical novels. He is also the author of Write and Revise for Publication, published by Writer’s Digest Books.
Watch Me Go
by Mark Wisniewski
$26.95, hardcover; ISBN: 9780399172120