Saturday, May 15, 2010

Short Story Month, May 2010: Pinckney Benedict's "Bridge of Sighs" and Alyson Hagy's Brief Lives of the Trainmen""

More Comments from my discussion of stories from Pinckney Benedict's Miracle Boy and Other Stories and Alyson Hagy's Ghosts of Wyoming, including a comment from Pinckney Benedict. The full discussion, involving several others, can be found on the Emerging Writers Network blog.

Pinckney Benedict, “Bridge of Sighs”

I agree with John that in “Bridge of Sighs” Benedict uses the vehicle of a cattle epidemic to explore a universal human reality. However, I am not so sure it is a “sickness in humankind,” except that ultimate “sickness unto death” that befalls us all. And as I read it, the boy does not hallucinate a flame-throwing nightmare of war. He tells Scurry, “I made a mistake. I thought it was a cartoon on, but it was the war.” What he took for a kind of Tom and Jerry bit of stylized violence was actually the news showing a scene probably from Viet Nam. So, it seems to me, war is not the problem, just another symptom of the universal human reality of facing death. And it is always brutal.

I remember the first time I saw the Bridge of Sighs spanning one of the canals in Venice. I think it was Lord Byron who gave it this name because when the prisoners were taken across it, they looked out one of the small windows and sighed at their last view of the world before being placed in a dungeon. Benedict does not make a big deal out of this allusion, but the fact that the name is given to the walkway over which animals and workers cross in an abattoir or slaughterhouse, combined with a suit named “The Exterminator” and an instrument named Humane Cattle Killer, all urge a universal reading, especially when the boy makes the mistake of thinking it is a Human Cattle Killer.

I looked up Greener’s .445 Humane Cattle Killer on line and found pictures of it and full instructions on how to use it. Cold and grisly stuff! But all perfectly natural. During hog-killing season back in Eastern Kentucky, as a child I watched my grandfather take a short-handled sledge to forehead of a hog and stun it to its knees, before deftly slicing its throat with a razor-sharp knife. All perfectly natural and perfectly inevitable.

The story makes me think of James Agee’s fable “A Mother’s Tale”—a more obvious parable about facing death, in which a mother cow tells her child about the story passed down through generations of The One Who Came Back, having escaped the mysterious Man with a Hammer. Being frightened by the father in the Exterminator suit, but seeing his loving friendly eyes inside the eyeholes is an effective image of the kind of make-believe monster that Bruno Bettleheim says frighten children in fairy tales and haunt our unconscious. The two-headed monster that turns out to be two spring calves is similar at the end of the story. The real problem the boy says, is telling the difference between what’s happening and what we think is happening. His father helps him with that.

The boy hears the sound of running water and thirsts for it, has a hard time imagining a world without dogs, hopes to find mudpuppies in the stream, and all the while the sound of the shots remind him of the inevitable. At the end of the story, it comes down to Scurry’s powerful desire to deny death, to insist that nothing is wrong, “Nothing wrong at all.” The boy knows that Scurry needs someone to bear witness to that, to testify to that. So do we all. If it were not so, we would not have religions.

I can’t help remembering the movie, The Love Bug, when Michelle Lee is trapped inside the Volkswagen, Herbie and cries, "Help! I'm a prisoner! I can't get out.” A hippie in a van looks over and says: We all prisoners, chickie baby. We all locked in.”

Yeah, I know that is like leaping from the sublime to the ridiculous. But I reckon that's the way stories make my mind work.

Comment by Pinckney Benedict

Dude, I adore that detail about THE LOVE BUG and the hippie. It's exactly the kind of comedown that's needed, the exact right way to undercut melodrama. And I love that it came up in connection with my work, and particularly "Bridge of Sighs" (which verges pretty heavily on the melodramatic, if it doesn't outright plunge into it - not the worst, maybe, but one of the most frequent of my sins as a writer).
I actually didn't know about the bridge in Venice (what an ignoramus!) until I was working on the story. I ran across a reference, in looking up some stuff about slaughterhouses, to the walkway into one of the big Chicago packing houses, which they called The Bridge of Sighs, and I thought it was perfect. Imagine my chagrin when Richard Russo publishes a book by this same name right around the same time the story came out!

"A Mother's Tale" sounds like something my parents would have read to us when we were kids. They used to tell us, when we didn't drink all our milk at a meal (and we drank a LOT of milk) that our refusal "made the cows cry." They were sneaky that way, as all good parents are. We drank our milk. I'll have to find this one and read it for myself. Thanks for the steer (no pun intended).

Alyson Hagy, “Brief Lives of the Trainmen”

This is one of those stories that the more I read it the better I like it. That’s a good thing, don’t you think? —Certainly better than the opposite. Like Dan and John, I am drawn to the multiple metaphors and similes. But I think Hagy has more going on with this kind of language than local color and picturesque poetry. I think she creates a kind of stylized folktale, a cartoon-like world and cleverly leads us into it.

In my opinion, this is a story about how stories come into being. All the “brief lives” in the separate sections accumulate and create an alternate reality until that wonderful folktale episode of Captain Hallock’s horse being spooked by Joe Hanna’s shooting the cook’s rooster and throwing him into the laundry pot. Hagy says that this will not be the last word about the misadventure: “The tale will have ten verses and a chorus once the rail gangs slaver into it.” Why else would one of the characters in the story be named "Ode”?

Bret Harte once said of this kind of story (his kind of story): "It was Humour--of a quality as distinct and original as the country and civilization in which it was developed. It was at first noticeable in the anecdote or "story," and after the fashion of such beginnings, was orally transmitted. It was common in the barrooms, the gatherings in the "country story," and finally at public meetings in the mouths of "stump orators." Such characteristic American humor, says Harte, was the parent of the American short story.”

I don’t know if Hagy had Harte in mind when she wrote this story, but she sure creates a wonderfully Western comic image of “Liberty’s living fuse” as those folks on the work train lay down another mile of track. God knows how the Transcontinental Railroad, that Diviner’s line, ever got laid by the “miscreant hands” of these trainmen. But by God, it did! Even the journalist who tries to record it all, following the line’s progress with a wagon full of lead type, has to cope with a scrofula swelling of the testicles. The trainsitman on the surveying team remembers his former professor who quoted Seneca: “It is better to know useless things than to know nothing at all.” He thinks those words “convey the sad blare of an anthem” and he believes he knows less than he did when he left Chicago. “About himself. About ambition and America.”

This is a story about how great things grow out of little bits. That applies to the Transcontinental Railroad as well as it does to Hagy’s story.

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