Our ugliest mistakes return unbidden when we least expect them to do so. Such is the case for William, the middle-aged and guilt-ridden protagonist of Max Estes‘ Hello Again.
William is the superintendent of his apartment building, and a reluctant one at that: he corrects another character when she refers to him as a “landlord.” He is unmotivated to improve his lot in life and satisfied to maintain an affair with Delia (his friend Aaron’s fiancée).
He lies to his mother when she asks if there are “any young women in [his] life,” and feigns interest when Aaron invites him to dinner with Delia. Even after William meets a woman from his building, he recalls Delia’s (not too) subtle bedroom coaxing: “Enough about Aaron, let’s talk about William.”
All things conspire against William becoming self-satisfied, until, that is, he stumbles across a hole in the ground. An adequate metaphor, to be sure, and one seen elsewhere in literature (how’s about Alice in Wonderland for starters?) Instead of beginning a quest for self-discovery, though, William has his quest thrust upon him in the form of Oliver, a bearded manifestation of William’s “conscience” (think Jiminy Cricket).
Oliver represents not only William’s (largely ignored) “conscience”, but also his (deeply buried) subconscious, and William’s struggle emerges as one between sustaining his tired existence or confronting his childhood fears.
Estes presents the relationship of William and Oliver as one that adheres (albeit loosely) to the Jungian concept of synchronicity, an event in which two (or more) events are linked more by philosophical meaning and less by causality (this just means that William and Oliver have their fates intertwined, so to speak). If this sounds too heady, then that’s because it is; William is not overtly troubled by his decisions, but rather challenged by Oliver to account for mistakes. (Think of the ghost of Bob Marley from A Christmas Carol).
At one point, Oliver warns, “I’m here to break this cycle, Willy. The next messenger may not be so pleasant.” Is Estes claiming that self-reflection is inevitable? Is Oliver even necessary or would William have confronted his mistakes sooner or later?
If Hello, Again works anywhere, then it is in its simple layout: four panels to every page, many without dialogue. William is loosely sketched (think: the Elongated Man), noodle-ly and capable of stretching to accommodate his morally wayward behavior. Oliver resembles a garden gnome: obstinate and flat-footed. (I imagine him sounding quite gruff; the character is a seaman, after all).
The narrative runs over 150 pages, and concludes within the final twenty (or so): too rushed, I think, to give full weight to the decision(s) that William must make and the consequence(s) that he must face. And for someone who behaves as wantonly as William does, it seems unfair that he should land on his feet.
Hello, Again is available from Top Shelf Productions ($10).