Wake Up, We’re Here
by Dallas Hudgens
Relegation Books; 260 p.

It’s hard to say exactly why Dallas Hudgens’s collection Wake Up, We’re Here did such a good job of getting under my skin. And yet it did — for all that a reader might encounter the pleasures of reading ten well-crafted stories, Hudgens also taps into numerous fractured anxieties: parental, financial, and physical among them. With knowing details and characters whose lives feel thoroughly broken in, he depicts lives on the economic or emotional margins.

Some of the characters here are simply trying to get by, whether through improvised business ventures or fundraising efforts that aren’t strictly legal. Familial bonds, some frayed and some cut, are at the center of others. And Hudgens also concerns himself with reinvention: a divorced father who becomes a heavy-metal drummer in “Velour,” or a recovering Ketamine addict who finds himself sober and with a steady job as he settles his mother’s estate. These efforts don’t always go well, and Hudgens is unsparing in citing the depression that can accompany efforts to better oneself. And yet his telling is compassionate: all of these characters’ efforts, whether successful or not, feel sincerely told.

It doesn’t hurt that Hudgens can pull off impressively disjointed descriptions, such as this, from “Hand Job”: “She looked like a sexy piece of strawberry taffy.” Elsewhere, he layers precise details atop one another. The aging-musician protagonist of “Targets,” in the midst of attempting to scam the titular retailer, eyes a t-shirt adorned with the cover artwork of Pink Floyd’s Animals, and ponders buying it for his daughter: “Maybe nobody would know it came from Target.”

There’s a cinematic feel to some of these tales, a slight treading in the direction of noir or, in the case of “The Palace of Weariness,” a full-on attack of the Gothic. And at the end of the collection, Hudgens brings many of his preferred themes and anxieties together in “The Scavenger’s Daughter.” It’s about the unlikely relationship that forms between a dentist and a younger musician after they meet on a tennis court, but its real subject is the underlying fragility of the connections we make, whether familial, social, or romantic. The story opens in the aftermath of the death of its protagonist’s daughter, and there are more wrenching moments to come. The same could be said for Wake Up, We’re Here as a whole, but many readers will find it hard to stop reading.

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