Wasp Box by Jason Ockert
Panhandler Books, 188 pp. $19.95.
Jason Ockert’s debut novel, Wasp Box, starts with three visitors to a small New York town: two half brothers and a highly aggressive, invasive species of wasps. The brothers, ten and seventeen, are visiting the eldest brother’s good-for-nothing dad, who abandoned his family years before. The wasps are visiting to lay their eggs inside the inner ears of the local townsfolk and their pets.
Though early on Wasp Box resembles a traditional Bildungsroman—a teenager on summer break, that first menial job, a budding romance—it turns out to be slyly experimental. The novel is epistolary at times, historical in others. Sometimes it slips into the surreal, and Ockert uses no small amount of 1980s style Body Horror, a la The Fly or Alien. Some of the most engaging and terrifying moments come when Ockert is showing the frayed consciousness and bizarre behavior of a person with wasp larvae feeding on the insides of his skull.
For the most part the writing is straightforward and unobtrusive, but Ockert’s language elevates when the moment calls for it: “Hudson can see faint ripples on Speck’s eyelids beneath which his eyes are darting, caught up in a vivid dream,” and “the soldier will learn the difference between being the creator of life and the incubator of it.” When describing a sociopathic contractor Ockert writes, “His lips are two centipedes.”
The writing is not, however, without flaws. Characters seem to “scamper” and “scurry” and “scramble” as often as they walk or run. Ockert sometimes falls back on canned dialogue: “Back then communication was rudimentary at best,” and “It won’t kill us to do without,” a seventeen-year-old boy apparently says. There are also redundancies of image; Ockert dilutes a nice line about a teenager spitting “a rope of water” by trying to get extra mileage from the image when another character spits “a rope of blood.”
Some of the relationships feel thin. Ockert doesn’t seem to have the patience to convincingly portray a budding teenage romance, which develops at such alarming rate as to remove all believability. But who can blame him? Ockert seems eager, as I certainly was, to get back to the main event: the wasps.
When Ockert is writing about the wasps, the book registers into a different energy level. It buzzes and hums, absolutely alive. They are the most developed character in the novel, the centerpiece. The most interesting scenes involve the wasps, including a brilliant set-piece where a train accidently runs over a wasp nest, and the insects, thoroughly agitated, are strewn about the passenger car. Unpleasantness ensues.
Though at times uneven, Wasp Box is an exciting read, particularly once the wasps are fully unleashed. It’s not merely a thriller, though, and Ockert gives significant attention to the emotional lives of his characters, which ups the stakes when they confront the wasps. The result is something like if Russell Banks wrote Jumanji fan-fiction, which, in case there is any doubt, is definitely a compliment.