Friday, May 17, 2013

Puzzle the Prof: The Ending of Ron Rash's "Cherokee"

Thanks again to Keith Hood, who has submitted another “Puzzle the Prof” challenge. Keith says he would like to hear from anyone who's read Ron Rash's collection, Nothing Gold Can Stay.  He wants some other opinions about what happens at the end of the story "Cherokee,” saying he senses some irony at work in the phrase about the couple’s knowledge that their luck “couldn’t last,” but is not sure what it is. Keith says he would understand the ending better if the sentence read "their luck [wouldn't] last" but the "couldn't last" leaves him scratching his head.

Thanks much to Richard Pangburn, who has some suggestions about “Cherokee.” He says the story is about a couple who exemplify the “working poor,” who have been persuaded to buy a truck they cannot afford and now are taken in by the lure of the casino that “operates as a tax on the poor.” Richard says drink is a metaphor in the story as the wife goes beyond her limit and gets drunk with the power of their winnings. He notes that the story “ends ok, as they both now realize that this has been simply luck and that any thought that they have exerted control of their luck through a rabbit's foot or personal exceptionalism is merely superstition,” adding that they are better off at the end of the story, more mature, and we can hope, more appreciative of love, of the immaterial things that make life worth while.”

In my opinion, the story does not have such serious social/moral/emotional implications as Richard suggests. I’m not sure that Ron Rash is really concerned with the exploitation of the “working poor” in this story, nor do I think the couple have become more mature, have rejected superstition, and have learned something about eternal human values.

Every once in a while, it seems to me, writers, especially writers of short stories, think about the conventions of narrative, kinds of stories, techniques of telling a story, reader expectations, etc, and decide to play a little game with those conventions.

To quickly review some sophomore-level intro to lit: One of the most basic conventions of story—recognized at least as long ago as Heraclitus and Aristotle’s Poetics – is that the two basic causes of what makes things happen to people in the world are fate and character, most evident, of course, in Tragedy.  Oedipus’s pride in thinking he could go against the Gods causes his downfall, but it is fate that put him on the road where he meets his father. 

Luck and fate may be thought of as quite different--luck defined as random events and fate defined as predetermined events. However, they both share the basic characteristic of being out of human control, for regardless of one’s character, luck and fate are just things that happen.  Luck is what, it seems to me, Ron Rash’s story “Cherokee” is about, although it is also ultimately about character.  As in all stories, the reader’s interest lies here in what will happen; and what will happen is dependent either on luck or character.  It seems to me that what Rash is doing in this little story is playing with this basic narrative convention and reader expectation.

The theme of “luck” is announced at the very beginning of the story and is sustained throughout.  The story opens with reference to the young man wearing a rabbit’s foot on his belt and a four-leaf clover dangling from his neck, both of which suggests the human wish to influence luck.  It also opens with the possibility of fairytale magic as the young woman recalls the story of someone rubbing a magic lantern and being granted three wishes, which suggests doing something to make something happen. The young couple only has one wish—perhaps just as fantastic as the genii in the jar—to play the slot machines to transform their savings of $157.00 into a thousand dollars so they can keep the bank from taking away their Ford Ranger pickup.  Lisa, the young woman, whose perspective governs the story, knows that all it would take is a bit of bad luck—getting laid off or an accident—to lose the truck. The two are hoping that a bit of good luck will insure them against possible bad luck.

In terms of character, the young couple have worked hard during the three years of their marriage, with Danny, the young husband, growing out of his boyish drinking and horsing around with his friends to become a responsible man.   Both Lisa and Danny agree that the only way they might get the needed thousand dollars is by luck, for character (as defined by their responsibility and hard work) is not going to be enough.  They do not see that pinning their hopes on luck, especially on slot machines on which the odds are notoriously in the favor of the house, is foolish, unrealistic, and downright unlikely.  Lisa fondles the rabbit’s foot when she thinks maybe they will win, for “It’s not for lack of trying,” although she has doubts when she sees the imposing casino and wonders, “How could anyone hope to win against such a place?” Of course the only way one can “try” to win is to take a chance and gamble.

Torn between hope and doubt, Danny and Lisa play a slot machine, with the number of credits registered on the machine moving up and down as they win and lose.  The two men who are witness to the couple’s playing are, like everyone else in the casino, depending on “luck”—not knowledge, not skill, not experience—just luck, with one of the men asking to rub the rabbit’s foot and playing some money on Danny’s “lucky” streak.  Throughout the story, the references to luck continue, with one man saying, “You got to ride this kind of luck out,” believing that once you get these machines in a mood to give it up you best stay on them, as if one can, by sheer will and effort, influence the machine.

Finally, when Danny and Lisa win enough to accumulate the needed thousand dollars, Rash has basically three alternatives as to how to end the story—either they will lose it all, or they will win more, or they will quit and go home.  Lisa looks at Danny watching the players after he cashes in, but cannot tell if he is thinking, as she is, that they might win enough to fulfill more of their wishes—pay a year’s rent, start a family, etc.  Lisa thinks that since they have had two experiences of good luck—winning the money and being given a free room—a third time might be a charm.

In the last section of the story, when Lisa wakes the next morning, hung over and finds Danny is not in the room, she, and the reader, suspect the worst—that he has taken the money and gone downstairs and lost it all.  Rash quite purposely sets up this expectation in the reader, for given the overwhelming focus on luck in the story and the conflict between character and the couple’s desire for more good luck, the couple seems narratively set up for a final loss. 

However, when Lisa opens her handbag and finds all the money still there, the story ends with this line: “The elevator closes behind her, and she walks toward a man who knows as well as she does that their luck couldn’t last.” The story does not end with the phrase “their luck wouldn’t last” because there is no clear indication that they are going to continue to gamble; Lisa is sober with the needed thousand safely in hand, and Danny did not take it out of her purse when he had the opportunity.  So the end of the story depends on the couple’s decision about which notion of luck to believe—that luck comes in threes or that luck cannot last.  The first is a wish; the second is a sure thing. 

But there is another possibility: It is not surprising that Danny has not taken the money and gambled with it while Lisa sleeps, for in this story, the couple does everything together.  At the end of the story, they have had continued good luck.  But as she walks toward him, they may be preparing to continue to gamble together—a decision that would mean their luck has now ended, for both know their “luck couldn’t last.”

So what will influence their decision when the story ends—their character or their wish for luck?  Will they feel they have fulfilled their goal and go home and make the payments on the truck, or will they create new goals and hope their luck will continue? It is up to the reader to decide.

The most famous example of an open story like this is Frank Stockton’s “The Lady or the Tiger.” Ostensibly "The Lady or the Tiger" is a story about justice, that is, the only kind of justice possible in fiction--poetic justice.  The end of the game played by the semibarbaric king has only two alternatives, and they are quite purposely the conventional alternative endings of comedy or tragedy--marriage or death.  The fact that this particular story "ends" before it ends, giving the reader the freedom to choose a conclusion, is a game on Stockton's part to exploit the reader's need to "close" a story, to see true justice enacted. 

Stockton urges readers to close the story not by choosing what they want to come out of the door, but rather in the way readers always achieve closure--by looking back at the plot, the tone, and the thematic motifs to determine the story's thematic "end."  Since the story makes quite clear that the semibarbaric nature of the princess consists of her being both lady-like and tigerish, what readers are really asked to decide is which aspect of the princess dominates at the end--her lady side or her tiger side.  Because the presentation of what goes on the princess' mind makes quite clear which side that is, the reader is not so free to choose as it first appears.    

The story is most interesting, however, for its focus on the reader's need for closure.  For even though the story leaves little doubt that the tiger pounces out at the end (for the princess has more tiger in her personality than lady), most readers feel somehow tricked or cheated that the author leaves the final choice ostensibly open.  

1 comment:

Richard L. Pangburn said...

Thanks, Professor. I can see it the way you do too, but for this reader, the change in the story occurs when the couple are drinking.

The man sees his "glass as half full" while the woman sees hers as empty and needs it filled up again and again.

This marks the departure of the vicious cycle that the couple have been locked into. The man sees the whimsy of luck clearly while the woman is flush with the winnings and flush with drink. It is not until she awakes from her debaunch that she can see clearly again.

I don't disagree with your surmise of Ron Rash's intentions; but to this reader, his intentions are irrelevant to my personal interpretation.

I hope that you are going to give us your interpretation of the Stephen Dobyns story, "A Happy Vacancy."

Thanks again.