Don't let the theme fool you. These three books are anything but failures. They are, in fact, full of sharply rendered and utterly original characters who fail spectacularly in their attempts to do right (or what they think is right). They are men on a mission, variously heroic, harebrained, heartfelt, even cruel, but their good intentions are undeniable, if not always admirable.
When the murderer of his brother-in-law receives a lenient prison sentence, Owen Patterson seeks revenge on behalf of his brokenhearted wife and in-laws. Under the pseudonym of Lily Hazleton, Owen begins writing letters to the killer, determined to woo him, then break his heart. Despite this misguided attempt at justice, there's something oddly heroic about his scheme — haven't we all wanted to exact revenge against those who hurt the ones we love? But Owen's plans backfire horribly, and his marriage and emotional stability begin to unravel as well. Wilson's story is at turns creepy and disturbing, tender and sad, and Owen is an endlessly fascinating creation.
Charles Yu's debut story collection features mostly young men who lead dead-end lives against fantastical backdrops. The title story features Moisture Man, possessor of the rather un-superpower that enables him to "take about two gallons of water from the moisture in the air and shoot it in a stream or a gentle mist. Or a ball." With such meager abilities, he fails repeatedly to get his superhero certification (which includes health insurance) and so, in a desperate attempt for super-street cred, he sells top-secret intel to the shady Johnnie Blade in exchange for the power of flight. His deal, of course, sends his superhero friends crashing down, and the story suggests a lonely end, disconnected from that thing to which he'd once aspired. But Yu manages to take the whimsy of this two-dimensional comic book world and blur the lines of good and evil in ways unexpectedly poignant and profound.
The protagonist of Joe Meno's novel is former kid sleuth Billy Argo who, at the age of 30, makes a painful re-entry from a mental hospital. He arrives in a world far more mysterious than that of his crime-solving youth. Now, whole buildings vanish and decapitated ghouls randomly appear, and his lifelong archenemy rides the bus with Billy on his way home from a dead-end job. Still reeling from the suicide of his beloved sidekick sister, drugged out on anti-anxiety medication and hopelessly paranoid, Billy can only find redemption by learning to accept the most human of failures — the inability to solve the inherent mystery of death. Meno strikes a perfect balance in his ability to capture the wonder of our favorite childhood novels, while evoking the undeniable loss of having to leave those stories behind. Boy Detective is one of the most moving books I've read in years.
As a kid, I longed for superpowers, wished death to be a cheatable thing and yearned to exact revenge on those who did me wrong. Luckily for me, those were impossible things. But fortunately for us, these three authors bring to life characters who, despite their failures, at least have the guts to defy the odds. They try and try; and they come up short. We should all be so lucky to fail as spectacularly.
Lysley Tenorio is the author of Monstress and lives in San Francisco.
Three Books... is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Andrew Otis.