When a soldier returning home to a small New York town inadvertently transports an invasive species of deadly parasitic wasps, he sets off a frightening chain of events that throws an entire community into an unpredictable crisis. The wasps grow in number to a few thousand in only a matter of days, permeating the wine country to which seventeen-year-old Hudson has traveled for the summer with his younger half-brother Speck.
As Hudson attempts to connect with his estranged, distant father who lives in the town, Speck discovers the soldier’s discarded journal, and it mesmerizes him with its bizarre, haunting tale—one that causes him to doubt the safety of his surroundings as the deadly wasps multiply.
Escalating in its psychological, emotional, and narrative intensity, Ockert’s gripping first novel examines the choices individuals make in the face of crisis, the limits of personal strength, and the value of family loyalty when the familiar world unravels.
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Praise for Wasp Box
“Jason Ockert’s Wasp Box is full of wonders, by which I mean it’s full of drunken fathers and the Finger Lakes of New York and middling wineries and too smart and nosy for their own good kids and bomb shelters and young love and lost love and lost diaries and killer Wasps. Does this sound like something you’ve read before? Me, neither. In this, his unbelievably smart, tense, breakneck first novel, Ockert has made something strange, and great, a book that is absolutely impossible to put down once you’ve started it.” — Brock Clarke, author of Exley
“Wasp Box begins as a story of a soldier’s return, but soon explodes into a dazzlingly labyrinth tale of how individual acts can give way to unintended catastrophe. With sentences as darting and sharp as the wasps that haunt this remarkable debut novel, Jason Ockert has crafted an unforgettable vision of an America—and a family—in peril.” – Laura van den Berg, author of The Isle of Youth
“Wasp Box may cause swelling, itching, anaphylactic shock, renal failure, barbed terror, stinging empathy and profound joy.” – Benjamin Percy, author of Red Moon
“Wasp Box is a thrilling debut that will no doubt soon garner lots of positive attention from readers and critics alike. It is that rare novel that manages to be profound while also being profoundly entertaining.” – Wraparound South
“What develops in Wasp Box is horrific, beautiful, bizarre, poignant and mesmerizing. The sensory and visceral detail will cause readers to claw at their legs and necks, jam fingers into their ears, or hop on one foot to shake from the head what may lurk inside. Wasp Box portrays families at their best and worst, strongest and weakest, closest and most distant. Above all, it offers a portrait of the resilience and reliance necessary to survive.” – The Rumpus
“Jason Ockert’s first novel is strangely magnificent. Deep down, Wasp Box is a love story: A soldier searches for a way to come home to his sweetheart, a man attempts to be a better father to his son, a quiet boy and an odd girl find companionship in each other and an old man struggles to cope without his deceased wife. But it’s also a story filled with a quiet, lurking dread. It touches on the fear that lives inside all of us, a fear that literally surfaces when a soldier returned from war births a swarm of parasitic wasps that have been nesting in his brain, feeding on his insides. Are you cringing yet? Good. Those are just the first two pages.” – Bookslut
“At 179 tight pages, Wasp Box is an argument for the short novel in the vein of The Burning House by Paul Lisicky and A Good Day to Die by Jim Harrison. There’s not an ounce of bloat in this book. Ockert’s masterful usage of first person contributes to the story’s immediacy. Ockert suggests that the wasps’ agitation merely elevate the swarm that resides within all of us. By exercising control over his prose and his content — by making the focus of the book how Hudson’s search for independence pushes against his father’s desire to strengthen their relationship — Ockert manages to tell a narrow tale that pulses wide.” — The Millions
“The novel is at once a profound commentary on the human condition in America at the moment and a bona fide case of the heebie-jeebies between covers.” — Fiction Writers Review
“For all of its clever construction, this story is ultimately an examination of character, of individual lives pushed to the very limit of psychological strength. For those interested in a stunning plot that expertly encapsulates both the darkest and redeeming aspects of human existence, Wasp Box is worth the read.” — The Collagist
Information about the Author
Jason Ockert is the author of two collections of short stories: Neighbors of Nothing and Rabbit Punches. He has received awards from The Atlantic Monthly, Mary Roberts Rinehart Foundation, the Dzanc Short Story collection contest, and been nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award. His short fiction has appeared in New Stories from the South, Best American Mystery Stories, Oxford American, storySouth, Ecotone, The Iowa Review, One Story, McSweeney’s, and Post Road. Jason serves as fiction editor of Waccamaw and is an associate professor at Coastal Carolina University.
Praise for Jason Ockert’s Previous Work
“Rabbit Punches marks the debut of an exciting new American talent. Ockert’s voice is quirky, funny, and totally original—it conveys, in these dreamlike, virtuosic stories, a strange and vulnerable kindness you haven’t read before.” — George Saunders
“The writing is hip but not terminally hip, fun, at times very fun, and contains signs that the author is disturbed enough to be worth watching. He may tell us some new things.” — Padgett Powell
“Beautiful stories, searching and generous. Ockert never ceases to astound.” – Junot Díaz
“Ockert’s stories make me feel grateful to have eyeballs—if you want to be surprised, expanded, devastated, delighted, then Neighbors of Nothing is what you should be reading. His plots are hair-raisingly original, his humor is feverish and dark, his language soars. And yet no matter what altitude of weird Ockert achieves here, his imaginary worlds are always populated by real people, characters who matter deeply to each other, and to their readers.” – Karen Russell
“Ockert’s debut features 13 stories, a host of quirky characters and strange plots grounded in a reality that is as disturbing as it is whimsical. In one story, a young boy feeds ticks into a sleeping child’s ear while a man prepares to arm wrestle Jesus. Though Ockert’s voice is still developing, his beautiful and unexpected imagery make him a writer to be watched.” Copyright © 1997-2005 Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. – Publishers Weekly
Excerpt from Wasp Box
After Hudson’s father leaves, Speck tucks his head back under the covers and falls asleep. Later, the urge to use the bathroom pulls him awake. When he is finished and in the hall he hears a faint scratching and whimpering issuing from beneath the front door. Who knows how long this has been going on. On the other side is the white dog, Pepper, crouched low, tongue and tail flapping.
“Hey, boy,” Speck says, “come on in.”
The dog doesn’t hesitate. With a short bark he’s inside and jumping up to play. And, just-like-that the day is sharper and worthwhile. They tussle roughly in the little living room. “I guess your leg has healed.” The boy tries to keep his balance when Pepper leaps at his chest. “All right, let me get dressed and we’ll go for a walk. Wait here.”
Instead of returning the journal to the mantle the boy slides it beneath his pillow. He re-applies the calamine and dresses in his only pair of jeans and a T-shirt. He’d rather brave the heat wearing long pants than combat the desire to scratch his legs all day.
Back in the living room Pepper is ruthlessly clawing his ear with his hind paws.
“I know how you feel,” Speck says, stepping over to help. When he’s close enough and running his nails through the dog’s fur Speck sees how filthy the dog is. “Everyone’s been paying attention to your brother and forgotten you. How would you like a bath?”
The dog continues to scratch his ear.
While the warm water is filling the tub Speck roots around for soap and a brush. The best he can find is an old toilet scrub. “Don’t worry; this thing probably hasn’t been used in years. It’ll feel good, anyway. Hop in.”
Pepper obeys. When he’s in, Speck switches to shower mode and water cascades over the dog which startles him enough to shake and spray the bathroom and the boy.
“Damn it,” Speck scolds. “Don’t do that.” He peels his shirt off. “I just put this on. Stay here,” he insists. Stepping outside, he drapes his shirt over the porch rail to dry. He doesn’t notice the gathering clouds on the horizon and returns inside.
At first Speck thinks his eyes are playing tricks on him—the adjustment from outside light to inside light fiddling with hues—when he sees the stream of pinkish-colored water draining off Pepper’s fur and staining the pool. The color doesn’t change after the boy forces a few hard blinks. Hurrying over, Speck discovers that this is blood. And with the fur flattened the boy can make out tiny dark-colored insects clinging like irregular flaps of skin all over the dog’s body.
“Oh,” Speck says, recoiling; “ticks.” The boy instinctively scratches his bare chest. “This is bad.”
Pepper lifts his hind legs and nearly slips when he tries to get at his ear.
“It’s all right, boy. Don’t do that. How about you sit?” Speck unplugs the drain and lets the bloody water spiral away. He turns the water off and flinches when Pepper shakes again. Getting serious, the boy commands the dog down. When Pepper finally relaxes, Speck kneels next to the tub to investigate. He spreads the fur and, with his fingernails, tries to pluck one of the fattest ticks off. With effort, the body yanks out leaving the tiny, parasitic head imbedded. Frustrated, Speck looks around the bathroom for something to help. In the medicine cabinet he finds old balms, toothpaste, and tweezers. Glancing for a moment at his water-flecked image staring back at him the mirror, he says, “This is a start.”
There’s nothing helpful in the hall closet. He considers and then discards the idea of a paring knife in the kitchen. In the living room his eyes drift to the mantle. There, in the smallest, cherry-colored coffin-shaped box with engraved flowers and a pewter top are matches, he remembers. Carrying the box with both hands, Speck returns to the bathroom where Pepper’s waiting nervously wagging his tail.
“I need you to stay still. This isn’t going to be easy. Let’s start down here.” Speck parts the fur and finds a tick clinging near the base of the tail. After removing all the wooden matches Speck sets the box atop the toilet lid. He strikes the head of the match against the sandpapery flint on the matchbox and watches as the sudden pop of flame ignites—a little magic here. Pepper retracts his tail. The boy shakes the fire out with a quick flick of his wrist. Then, leaning close, he lowers the still-hot tip of the match onto the backside of the engorged tick. When the insect rears Speck snips it with the tweezers and hoists it writing away. “Got you!” Searching for a suitable place to deposit it, Speck narrows in on the wooden box. “Can’t suck on anything in there,” he says, lowering it in.
When he discovers three more ticks in Pepper’s hindquarters Speck snaps flame into the match, extinguishes it, and is able to tweeze all of them with a single stick. He sets them into the box. To his credit, the dog, other than whimper occasionally, behaves. He senses some good is being done. By the time the boy is up around Pepper’s neck there are two dozen hapless blood-bloated parasites rolling around the bottom of the box. The gooseflesh on Speck’s arms has subsided now that he has made progress. He is no longer repulsed by the insects, just determined to exterminate them. When he eases back Pepper’s ear to continue, however, the boy’s arm hairs spike again. Clustered together like a spoonful of raisins are more ticks than anywhere else on the dog’s body. Despite his best efforts Speck has to step away and rake his nails up and down his arms and chest before returning to work. His determination overcomes disgust.
“They must like your neck,” he says, patting Pepper’s head softly. He strikes a match, waves it out, applies the heat, plucks four ticks, and drops them in the box. When he returns his attention to his work, Speck notices movement around the dog’s inner earflap. This catches him off guard. The blood-sated ticks don’t move much. With a deft plunge, Speck snags the insect before it can sneak deeper down into the dog’s ear canal. He lifts it into the air to inspect it. Unlike the floundering ticks with the expanding bodies, this thing is compact—missile-shaped—more like a beetle than a spider. It is dun-colored with a crimson luster. As he turns it over Speck can see a patch of tiny eggs—like the finest cottage cheese—tucked beneath paddle-like wings. The multi-refracted eyes stare blankly at Speck from a slick, antennaed head.
“What the hell are you?” Speck says. He drops it among the ticks, replaces several matches, and then seals the lid on top of the box. “That thing will crawl out if it can. We’ll toss the rest in the toilet.”
When he’s finished, Speck lathers Pepper with soap and washes him again. He turns the shower on and watches until the blood in the water disappears. Afterwards, he towels the dog off. “When your brother gets better, I’ll take care of him, too. If he lets me.”
Pepper, spent, trots to the front door. Speck opens it and finds a curtain of rain cascading in sheets across the porch roof. The dog hesitates. Then he taps toward the steps leading to Gus’s apartment and curls into a tight white ball. Speck scowls at his drenched tee shirt plastered to the rail and then returns inside. Whatever joy he felt earlier has evaporated.
The boy sets the cherry-colored coffin-shaped box back on the mantle. He shakes it a few times to hear the insects and matches rattle. He wonders how long it will sit there unopened and what the person will think when he or she discovers what’s inside. Here is a little mystery the boy has created, a secret for some faraway stranger to puzzle through. Speck will always remember the sacrifice these parasites have made, insignificant as it may seem. He won’t forget the suffocating death in the box on the mantle, in his head. The blood upon his hands.