The story immediately announces its writerly intent: “Our trailer sat on cinder blocks in a half-acre lot a four-cigarette drive outside of town,” town being Bonner. The writerliness is muted but for a self-consciously spare style that reflects the spareness, almost barrenness, of the narrator’s life, the starkness of his surroundings, the laconic energy of his own drive.
The narrator called Cal, an 18-year-old man, lived in a trailer with his unemployed-logger dad, burrowed his hands deep in slaughtered elk and deer and, in the same breath, felt safe. The title of the story refers to a cougar that’d been wandering about, terrorizing domesticated animals, and that he at times may have spied to kill. Cal’s father disappears in the narrator’s senior year in high school. “Search and rescue never found a body.” Narrator washes dishes in a Korean-owned Chinese restaurant whose owners prefer to illegally dump their garbage than pay dumping fees. (“We had a Korean restaurant but no one came. People here only want shit Chinese food.“) The landlord, an Indian, is called Jenny but is a man who fishes for girls on the internet, chases after them naked, dispenses the occasional puff of wisdom. He turns Philip Noiret’s Salvatore in “Cinema Paradiso” telling Alfredo to leave and not “come back. Don’t think about us. Don’t look back. Don’t write,” but to Cal, with the same absence of poetry or emotion that had him tell Cal he needed to get his dick wet: “Cal, I’m serious,” he said. “You got to get out of Bonner. You got to start figuring out what you want to do next.”
Cal’s only friend is Koda the dog, who is killed by the cougar, that recurring predator that manages to have the most agency in the story: it’s the only doer. A friend of Cal’s keeps urging him to join him on a lucrative oil-rigging job. He takes the test, passes, but seems to lack the money, or something, to push him to the job, even as a year passes and he gets fired from the restaurant. “I wondered if my trailer was shit, if my way of living was shit. If Dad’s life had been shit.” He loses it, shoots the place up, seemingly, improbably, with no consequences: if he’s able to do something that reckless, able to get his hands in a carcass’ guts, what’s keeping him from getting his hands dirty elsewhere? It doesn’t quite add up. The outburst at the restaurant is not any kind of marker. He might as well have been having another cigarette. Somehow he goes on, unable to pay rent. Jenny seems to be dying and wants Cal to take care of the cougar in his absence, feed him. The irony.
So the story circles, like that cougar, its preys the narrator and his diminishing entourage, an angel of death with motives Jenny wants to make justifiable and earthy: hunger. There’s not much realism here, least in Cal’s arrested motivation: it’s never clear, like everything else—Cal’s father’s disappearance, Jenny, Cal himself. The story’s coherence doesn’t match with its captivating pacing, which weakens as Cal’s infuriating inaction marks the days. I don’t think Anderson intends her readers to lose interest in proportion to Cal’s drift.
[The image of Maria Anderson is from Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art, where her biography reads: “Maria Anderson is a Montana-born writer with a degree in literary arts from Brown University. She wins her bread working for various publications. She also writes for Curbs & Stoops, a Brooklyn-based art accessibility think-tank, where she does featured artists and interviews. Much of her fiction and nonfiction work takes inspiration from the outdoors and from the fine arts world.”]
Iowa Review, Fall 2017, Best American Short Stories 2018