By Rick Wilber

Wordfire Press


248pp/$25.00/May 2020

Cover by Janet McDonald

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Rambunctious collects nine short stories by Rick Wilber. While each of the nine stories is unique, they are also stories that could only have been written by Wilber, showing his interests, tapping into a sense of nostalgia that permeates much of his work, and touching on having relationships with people who suffer from Alzheimer's and Down syndrome. Although many of these themes recur in the stories, Wilber treats them uniquely enough that the stories do not feel repetitive, exploring different aspects of his interests in each tale.

There are many themes which show up throughout Wilber's writing and "Today is Today" includes several of them. A story that explores a family's relationships and history through multiple timelines, there is a strong sense of nostalgia that runs through nearly all of the timelines. Although the focus first appears to be on the relationship between Wilber's athlete protagonist and his wife, Alene, it is really on his varied relationships with their daughter, Janine, who has Down’s syndrome in some timelines and is an "intellectual powerhouse" in others. The story is not an apologetic or wish fulfilment, but rather a look at the way various relationships play out and the terms of acceptance between family members.

"Rambunctious" tells the story of Emma, being raised by her grandparents. While her grandfather is a little eccentric, her grandmother seems to be suffering from dementia and the belief that aliens will rescue her and Emma’s grandfather from earth in the near future. The need to defend her grandmother from ridicule leads Emma into some trouble at school, but also helps her built a rapport with the school principle. In his introduction, Wilber mentions that he had considered including it in his novel Alien Morning, and the story definitely feels like that world.

Although "Ice Covers the Hole" appears to start out as a nostalgic story by Wilber, it instead becomes a much darker tale as Melissa O'Malley discovers that by touching a corpse, she can sometimes experience its final moments. Although her initial discovery occurs with a deer her father has killed, it also happens when her boyfriend's body is returned from Viet Nam and her power allows her and her boyfriend's father, the local sheriff, to know how he was really killed. Years later, the sheriff calls upn Melissa to return to her hometown to help his solve a double rape and murder. While much of the story is telegraphed, the horror and tension come from wondering if Wilber is really telegraphing the ending or if it is just a red herring, as well as how the final confrontation will play out. Wilber later expanded the story to the novel The Cold Road, but the short story version is a taut thriller in its own right.

Ireland features prominently in many of Wilber's stories and novels and "Walking to Boston" is a time-bending love story between an American flyer during World War II and the Irish woman who rescued him when his plane crashed off the Irish coast. Wilber looks at the beginning of their relationship and their lives at the end when she has begun to slip into dementia, insisting that the two of them visit her non-existent sisters in Boston, completing a journey begun by her grandmother decades earlier. His agreement to take her from the home she's living in to distant Boston starts out as a ploy to calm her, but turns into an act of love as her psychosis begins to dictate his actions.

Wilber has written several short stories about a dimension hopping Moe Berg, who in real life was a major league catcher who did espionage work for the OSS during World War II. Wilber's series began with his story "Something Real," which won the Sidewise Award for Alternate History. The story recounts Berg's mission to determine whether Weiner Heisenberg was close enough to creating a nuclear bomb and needing to be killed to damage the German research effort. While the choice would seem to be a binary solution, either kill Heisenberg or not kill Heisenberg, Wilber adds other layers and complications to the story, including a mysterious woman who repeatedly shows up in Berg's life and knows more about him than she should. While the themes and characters Wilber sets up in the story are used in the subsequent works, “Something Real” comes to a successful conclusion on its own.

Wilber noted that his story "Rambunctious" could have fit into his novel Alien Morning. "Several Items of Interest" is a story that is set in that world in which the S'hudonni have taken over the Earth. Much as the novel does, the story focuses on brothers named Peter and Tommy who have similarities to the brothers in the novel, but also differences. While Alien Morning takes place on Earth, "Several Items of Interest" takes Peter to the S'hudonni homeworld, giving the reader a deeper understanding of the alien manner in which they live, and also brings him to the shores of the Great Lakes to confront his brother and, potentially, avert a fraternal war among the S'hudonni, or possibly just act as a pawn in their games.

In many ways, "Hope as an Element of Cold, Dark Matter," is different from most of the stories in the book, but it still feels like a Wilber story. Annie Lindsay's parents were divorced when she was very young and she has absolutely no relationship with her astronomer father. When he offers to pay for her to attend a class in his hometown of Edinburgh, she does so reluctantly, not only not knowing her father, but also dealing with the recent suicide of her best friend. Despite her desire to keep to herself, Annie finds herself pulled into her father's new family as well as into friendship with some local girls who she met while they were playing basketball. As she begins to see positive parallels between her parents, Annie becomes more accepting of all the circumstances which have brought her to Edinburgh.

In his book My Father's Game, Wilber writes about being his father's caregiver as his father aged and raising a son with Down syndrome. Both of these men clearly inspire "Prices," about a man whose father once pitched a perfect game. Wilber's narrator clearly has had issues with his father, which didn't end when his father died. Throughout the story, his late father continues to call him, although it is unclear who, if anyone else can hear the phone or the conversations. The short story is rife with a sense of nostalgia and questions about what a son might owe his father (or mother, for that matter).

Just as "Rambunctious" has the feel that it belongs to the universe of Wilber's Alien Morning, so, too, does "War Bride." The story has definite parallels to "Rambunctious." Much as Emma's grandparents were waiting to leave earth with aliens, James is packing to leave earth this his lover, who is a member of an alien race. Just as Emma's grandmother was mocked for her beliefs, James is mocked by his friend, Tom, for both his relationship and the idea that it is anything more than a flirtation. At the same time, "War Bride" has a nostalgic feel to it as James is trying to figure out what tangible memories of earth he should pack to take with him when he does leave.

Reading through the nine stories in Rambunctious not only gives you a send of the familiar since Wilber has a tendency to revisit themes, but also gives the reader a sense of the breadth of his work. From the love story between an American flyer and an Irish girl to a dimension traveling ball player to a girl who reconnects with her father, Wilber offers variety, but always getting to the heart of connecting with other people and showing a sense of humanity.

Today Is Today
Ice Covers the Hole
Walking to Boston
Something Real
Several Items of Interest
Hope as an Element of Cold, Dark Matter
War Bride

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