Walker’s bold voice comes across with particular strength when he’s discussing the intimacy of love and hate.
We like to place LGBT+ writers in tiny boxes: the gay writer who tells a straight story is selling out, just as the trans writer who publishes anything with a cisgender character is guilty of erasure, and how could a lesbian know anything about a man? These statements are both provocative and false, but they are also abundant, particularly if you’re on Twitter or frequent the Goodreads or Amazon reviews sections. Philip Dean Walker, whose powerful debut collection of short fiction was primarily told from the perspective of gay men, spreads his wings with his sophomore collection, Read by Strangers. While the gay male perspective persists in the 15 stories in this collection, other voices take center stage. In fact, the majority of the stories are told by or follow female characters.
This is a bold move in these times, and these kind of efforts deserve the watchful eyes of others considering how poorly female voices often come to us when relayed by gay male voices. Just as gay characters have suffered in the hands of straight writers, female characters are often proxies for gay men, suffering housewives, or vapidly aspirational Ellen Ripley or Carrie Bradshaw types when presented by gay male writers. Walker admirably and, at times, bravely sheds all of these stereotypes and instead presents us with uniquely but empathetically haunted protagonists and antagonists.
While Walker’s previous collection wove fictional situations around “real” characters and events, Read by Strangers, as the title suggests, jumps into the deep waters of the unknown. Walker easily and remarkably creates whole worlds in just a few pages and describes both character and setting in utilitarian fashion. Walker lets his characters define themselves through action rather than shoving his opinions of them down our throats.
There is an addictive darkness to these stories, and it likely isn’t a coincidence that Walker’s best scenes involve either or both sex and violence. That’s not to say that there is any erotica in Read by Strangers; the sexual encounters here are often distinctly unsexy. However, Walker’s bold voice comes across with particular strength when he’s discussing the intimacy of love and hate.
The best stories in this collection, stories like “Unicorn” and “Brad’s Head Revisited, ’94” (best title ever?), are defined not by their similarities but rather by their bold delivery. Walker never fades to black; he willingly and sometimes gleefully describes the things that other authors avoid. Yet he’s also willing to let a story end before it wears out its welcome.
While the stories in Read by Strangers are universally entertaining, surprising, and often subversive, there is one particular area in which Walker knocks it out of the park and that is with his opening lines. Lines like “I fuck for money and I like it” and “When Joan slept with her daughter’s English teacher for the third time, she asked him to give her a grade” are not only enticing, they are deep and, given the stories that follow them, they are tricky. The opening line is an oft-forgotten art; as publication rather than readership becomes the reward, writers forget that they need a hook. This isn’t the case with Walker, who seems to relish shocking his readers with his initial hook.
Philip Dean Walker proved himself to be one of the finest short fiction writers of his generation with his first collection, At Danceteria and Other Stories. But to follow that up with something equally artful but also wildly different shows him to be more than a one-hit-wonder; he’s a talent to watch and one that is here to stay. His unique and beguiling mix of romance, horror, enchantment and disenchantment is powerfully distinctive yet also recognizable as a true representation of the art of the short story.