Thursday, July 28, 2011

PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories: 2011--Part II

I suspect that my pleasure reading the following three stories from the 2011 PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories is “summer reading self indulgence. They are what some reviewers like to call “accessible,” that is, they do not make great demands on the mind, but rather have a visceral appeal. All three engaged me immediately, and hooked me completely. All three had elements of danger, but the danger is purely physical. I don’t have any real desire to read them multiple times or to subject them to a careful analysis. The following is simply an account of what engaged me about the stories and a discussion of the issues they raised for me about reading the short story.

Mark Slouka, “Crossing.”

In his comment on the origins of this story, Slouka says that the event on which it is based happened fifteen years ago when, in what he calls “an act of near-biblical stupidity,” he was fording a river with his five-year-old son on his back and found himself in serious trouble: “There are few things more excruciating than realizing you’ve put your child’s life in danger.”

The story begins as a straightforward account of a man who takes his son to a remote area where he remembers similar experiences with his own father. He carries their packs across a shallow but fast-moving river and then goes back and carries his son across. They spend one night exploring the area, but the next day when he recrosses the river, he knows that because of some melt runoff the current is a bit stronger than the day before. When he takes the boy back across, he loses his footing and, although he does not fall, he is moved downstream four or five feet to a point that makes it seem impossible to move forward or backward. The story ends with the man in the middle of the river, telling his son that they are o.k. and just to “hang on.”

Slouka says that over the years he thought about the event often and knew he wanted to write about it, but that he could not find “the release, the spring, the image or phrase or note—often dissonant, almost always unexpected—that brings a story to life.’ Slouka adds, “Though the organic symbolism of the thing appealed to me, it felt too easy, too finished, inert.” So he let it be until he came across an anecdote that he has the man recall when he thinks with remorse and shame that he cannot get out of this dilemma—about a medieval priest who takes the torch from the executioner and goes down a line of victims tied to stakes and kisses each one tenderly on the cheek before lighting the fire under them. Slouka says this anecdote made him realize that he had to leave the man there in the stream, ‘tricked by life, prey once again to his old fears and insecurities. A man poised between his past and his future, between the impossibility of going on and the necessity of it.”

Of course the question the reader wants an answer to at the end of the story is: “Did the man get himself and his son across?” Slouka says that in real life he, of course, did get across with his son, who is now big enough to carry him across the river. But in the story, the man and boy do not get across, for they are still there in the middle of the river where the story leaves them. Slouka says: “Fiction, I remind myself, is an act of trespass on the territory of the past, and those who have no stomach for it, whose reverence for apparent truths, as opposed to created ones, is too great, probably shouldn’t play. Both are equally true: We made it. And we’re still, all of us, hip-deep in the current.”

To convert this simple, albeit terrifying event, into a piece of fiction, Slouka inserts several minor suggestions that the narrator, recently separated or divorced, is in an in-between place in his life, e.g. “he hadn’t been happy in a while,” “he hadn’t wanted her back, hadn’t wanted much of anything really” “when he looked at her she shook her head and looked away and at that moment he thought, maybe—maybe he could make this right, “Sometimes it wasn’t so easy to know how to go, how to keep things alive.”

When the narrator is in the middle of the river with his son on his back, he thinks “My God, all his other fuckups were just preparations for this.” “He couldn’t move. He was barely holding on. There was no way.” And as he feels the ‘hot, shameful fire of remorse and the unending pity,” he recalls the anecdote about the medieval priest who takes the torch from the executioner and goes down the line of condemned witches or heretics and kisses each one on the cheek before setting the torch to the tinder under their feet.

Why and how this anecdote transformed an event into a story for Slouka is up to the reader. The anecdote is a reference to the so-called “kiss of death,” originating in that act of betrayal when Judas kisses Jesus on the cheek, therefore identifying him for the soldiers. Perhaps the event became a story for Slouka when he knew that the man and his son would neither escape nor would they die, but would remain there, suspended between past and present, between safety and death, between the impossibility of going on and the necessity of going on. Who knows what went on in the mind of Judas when he betrayed Jesus with a kiss? Is the priest’s kiss in the anecdote an admission of betrayal or a kiss asking forgiveness of the condemned?

Slouka’s placing the man in a position wherein he cannot go on, but must go on recalls the final lines of Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable:
You must go on.
I can't go on.
You must go on.
I'll go on. You must say words, as long as there are any - until they find me, until they say me. (Strange pain, strange sin!) You must go on. Perhaps it's done already. Perhaps they have said me already. Perhaps they have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my story. (That would surprise me, if it opens.)
It will be I? It will be the silence, where I am? I don't know, I'll never know: in the silence you don't know.
You must go on.
I can't go on.
I'll go on.

I do not know if Slouka had this passage in mind when he knew he had to leave his narrator and his son in the middle of that river. However, it is the one thing in the story that elevates it from simple visceral danger to an image of the universal human condition.

Lynn Freed, “Sunshine”

Lynn Freed says little about this story, except that it has been with her for a long time. A. M. Holmes, who picked it as her favorite in the collection, has much to say. Holmes suggests that one is initially deceived by the apparent simplicity in the story: “Something exceptionally artful in the way the author manages the balance between what is said and what is left unsaid. Enormously complex information and emotion is invisibly conveyed; this works because what is being said carries the fullness and weight of collective archetypal imagery, classical themes of mythological root, literary references, albeit barely spoken, ad psychological theories—all adding up to the very essence of one’s moral life and responsibility.”

The story begins with the discovery of a feral female child in the bush, who is turned over to a man named Julian de Jong, the wealthy master of an estate. It seems clear that this is not the first time that a native girl or “wild child” has been brought to de Jong. Indeed, the women Grace and Beauty, who he orders to clean the child up, have once been such foundlings. For four weeks, the two women try to “tame” or “civilize” the young girl, and each night de Jong talks quietly to her. The title comes from the fact that at one point, Grace begins to sing the song “You Are My Sunshine,” which somehow charms the girl, allowing her to be coaxed into putting on clothes. Although Grace thinks the girl still retains more of the baboon than the human, de Jong orders that she be brought to him.

De Jong waits for the girl, as he has done with the others before her, naked in a pool of water. His rape of the girl is recounted in some detail, but afterwards when de Jong dunks her head under the water to make her stop moaning, she breaks away and begins to bite him, sinking her teeth into his neck and hanging on like a wild dog until he dies and she rips away the flesh, swallows it, and escapes out an open window. The girl never returns, and eventually the story becomes a village legend of a baboon girl who kills a demon. The villagers even begin to doubt the existence of the demon himself, thinking that surely someone would have reported him to the authorities, that one of the girls would have told her story to the newspapers.

Holmes calls attention to what she terms the Freed’s “deft summoning of the complexity of slave/master relationships, the struggle of women for legitimacy, beyond man’s object or possession, and question of economic power and domination…are part of what gives this story its resonance.” Holmes ends her discussion by saying that in the story she celebrates “the dark art” and applauds the “gruesome, the transgressive, the thing that does not let us escape from the side of ourselves that we would rather not see.”

My reaction to the impact of the story is similar to Holmes’ reaction. It is a horrifying tale of exploitation in which every one is guilty. However, I am not so sure that it has a feminist message. The wild child could just have easily been a boy as a girl. The story fascinates me because it reminds me that we are all animals and only a thin, temporary veneer of civilization keeps us in line. Conrad told the same story in “Heart of Darkness” with a great deal more complexity. Still, the story kept me riveted until the bloody end, becoming, as all stories do, a timeless legend.

Matthew Neill Null, “Something You Can’t Live Without”

According to his faculty profile for the Department of English at University of Iowa, “Matthew Neill Null was born and raised in West Virginia, where his family has lived for generations. He received a B.A. in English (summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa) from Washington & Lee University and an M.F.A. in Fiction from the Iowa Writers' Workshop. He has worked as a carpenter, a road crewman, and a grant writer. His fiction has appeared in The Oxford American, Gray's Sporting Journal, and Shenandoah. He's finishing a novel...and slowly, slowly, accruing a collection of stories.”

Manuel Munoz, who chose this story as his favorite in the 2011 PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, says:

The central character’s “attempt to pass on a cheap piece of goods to the poor farmer McBride is as straightforward a plot as anyone could ask, and the surprise comes in the story's largely silent battle of pride and comeuppance, two men thinking of the single way to emerge the better in the bargain. The real pleasure—and certainly not the only one—is in the sentences, as complex, deliberately assured, and lethal as Flannery O'Connor's. What an authentic, confident story this is, soaked through with deceit and menace and the distinctly abrupt strain of American violence. Add in a startling ending—an unforgiving embrace of the nature of time and history, if not the devouring jaws of myth—and you've got a work ready to prove that short stories and short-story writers are the most sprawling and unruly of all mythmakers.”

I have to admit that part of the appeal this story has for me is its setting in a rural area of West Virginia, which is very similar to the mountains of Eastern Kentucky where I was born and raised. Null is a young man in his twenties who says he wrote the story as a self-conscious challenge to himself to try to write a “drummer tale” that would be more than a cliché, admitting that he knows that many great writers—Faulkner, Chekhov, Flannery O’Connor, and Bernard Malamud—have written very fine travelling salesman stories, which are actually versions of the so-called “biter bit” stories, in which a con man gets conned.

However, I have my doubts when Null begins to talk about what he calls his central theme—“the crisis of people who love the land, but are faced with the prospect of selling or destroying some aspect of it to translate the landscape into dollars.” He says this is West Virginia’ story of the land having been sold and sold again for timber to coal mining. “Despite our common myths and party rhetoric, extractive industry has failed to improve the lot of West Virginians. For me “Something You Can’t live Without” is a middle chapter in a long, fraught history.”

I did not like Null’s story because of its so-called social message about the rape of Appalachia any more than I liked Lynn Freed’s story “Sunshine” because of its so-called social message about the exploitation of women. I think Null’s story is a straightforward, well-told tale about a travelling salesman who begins his career with a dead man’s sucker list and finally meets up with a sucker who gets the better of him. The salesman, Cartwright, on his buckboard wagon, riding up a holler to try to con honest Sherman McBride into buying a new plow, creates an irresistible image for me. And the language Null puts in the mouths of his characters sounds familiar to my ears. “Whoever cut this grade, Cartwright aid to the horses, must have followed a snake up the hollow.” (Although one of my folks would have said “holler.’) Still talking to his horses, Cartwright says, “It’s hotter than two rats fucking in a wool sock.” I have never heard anyone say this, but it’s funnier than any of the “hotter than” lines I have ever heard. When he tells McBride that he has something that will triple a man’s harvest yield with half the effort, adding “you can’t beat that with a stick,” I am ready for a sales pitch of the one tool he says a man cannot afford to be without.

When Cartwright makes the sale, but McBride does not have enough money to buy the plow, we know we are in for another con. One of McBride’s sons takes Cartwright deep into a cave to show him a fossil of a petrified bear that the Smithsonian Institute is willing to pay big money for. However, when Cartwright tries to chip the fossil head out of the cave wall, it shatters. Things go from bad to worse when they discover Cartwright’s sucker list which characterizes McBride as “among the country’s daft, drunken, gullible, and insane.”

The story ends abruptly when McBride shoots Cartwright with a shotgun, and they cover the body with pine boughs. The history of the body is summarized quickly as bears and foxes tear it apart and scatter it and rodents chew off the drummer’s belt and boots. Five years later a hunter finds his belt buckle. Twenty years later a bear hunter pries off Cartwright’s gold tooth, and an old woman gives his rib cage a Christian burial after a dog drags it into her yard. The McBrides use the Miracle plow, but their yield is no better than it was before. When they tell the next drummer this, he hightails it out of there.

I like how the story sets up a comic “biter-bit” story that becomes legend with the body of the drummer being salvaged for whatever it might be worth. I thought the story was funny and familiar and well told. I just do not see it had a social message about the raped Appalachian land. And I do not think it has the complex human significance that Eudora Welty creates in “Death of a Travelling Salesman” or Flannery O’Connor creates in “Good Country People.”

Null says "Something You Can't Live Without" is his attempt to write a drummer story that would "outdo the established demigods of fiction." As much as I enjoyed his story, in my opinion, not many can equal the mastery of Welty and O'Connor. However, I look forward to reading more stories by Matthew Neill Null in the future. I trust they will not lean too heavily on social messages about downtrodden Appalachia.

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