Tag: death

Joyce Carol Oates, “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God” (2019)

“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” takes its title from the Jonathan Edwards Great Awakening sermon published in 1741, and that mentions hell about 50 times. It’s only an allusion in the Joyce Carol Oates story, but it’s echoed in the context her characters are contending with, and in the actual wildfire hellfire that demolishes half their neighborhood, but not the house of the protagonist, Luce, who wears a mask to protect herself against pollution. The story is thick with the topicality of global warming and a dying planet, but through the eyes of Luce and her husband, a late middle-aged couple surrounded by late middle-aged men and women, friends, who are dying one by one, or getting terribly diseased, as if the planet’s ills are corroding them: “Their friends and neighbors are collapsing all around them—in mimicry of the collapsing roads of Vedders Hill.”

It’s Andrew’s (half-serious) opinion that, in the twenty-first century, damnation is a matter not of Hell but of inadequate medical insurance.

“We are spiders dangled by fate over the fires of Hell, and the slightest slip will plunge us into an eternity of misery—kept alive by machines, for which we may have to pay ‘out of pocket.’ ”

Andrew’s listeners laugh, uneasily. He may be joking—or half joking—but this is the nightmare that everyone in America dreads.

The couple, who have their own issues–he’s distant, a bit ridiculing of her “catastrophizing”–decide to have a party for their remaining friends, and Luce decides to revive the strong quartet she used to have, and perform Schubert’s String Quartet in D Minor, the 14th, “Death and the Maiden.” The pages on the performance of the quartet are among those rare performances in themselves of a writer conveying the art of music in words, so much better than Burgess did in his awful Mozart book, all wrapped up in Luce’s contradictory emotions and anguish: “The terror of beauty, Luce thinks. Like the terror of mortality, it is what links us.”

The New Yorker, Oct. 7, 2019

Isaac Bashevis Singer, “A Party in Miami Beach” (1976)

Miami Beach. (Janie Coffey)

Miami Beach. (Janie Coffey)

The story starts off worrisomely as another one of those meandering character sketches, the writer-protagonist meeting an unusual, eccentric so and so, the eccentric’s monologue going on and on and on, with a few philosophical asides along the way, a few reflections denoting the writer’s detachment, a touch of discomfort, bemusement or distaste on his part, and then scene. Singer developed the formula to excess. Gets old fast. The eccentric in this case is a rich old man in Miami Beach, Max Flederbush. The story has all the trappings of the Singer formula, but it comes alive, ironically, as Flederbush describes the funereal atmosphere of his aged and dying set, dying in a sea of luxuries. There’s a lot here that echoes William Trevor’s “The General’s Day,” a story taking on  greater significance the more stories I read. “If man is formed in God’s image, I don’t envy God.” “It’s scary to think the human species will last so long.” Getting old is torture. It is an invitation to cynicism.

Forverts, February and March 1976

Kafka, “The Metamorphosis” (1915)

The game to play as theorists have been playing it since 1915 is to decide the meaning of George Samsa’s insectile character (as J. Robert Lennon would describe him). I’m partial to that interpretation: it’s an insectile character, which makes the physical look and whether George is “in fact” a n insect or not irrelevant. Kafka didn’t want Samsa illustrated for a reason. He’s imprisoned in a state of mind. Don’t imprison him in a physical depiction. The first line has been translated in many different ways: “One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin.” “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” An insect, a vermin, nothing more specific. vermin and insects feed on the dead. This is a story of decomposition before our eyes–the decomposition of an ill and mentally and physically disfigured Samsa, the decomposition of a family, the decomposition of what had once been a loving relationship between Samsa and Grete, who becomes Samsa’s killer: “she had bloomed into a pretty girl with a good figure,” the opposite of her brother’s decomposition. Gregor’s father, as in every Kafka story so far, doesn’t elicit sympathy either. But there’s nothing sentimental about the story. Kafka isn;t pulling at strings to get the reader all in knots over Gregor’s condition. It becomes more uncomfortably familiar than imaginary as the story wears on–as Gregor decomposes. A sick, leprous person has the characteristics of an insect. Doesn;t have to look like one to feel like one. It is a story of illness, decline, of being discarded.

Wharton, “A Journey” (1899)


Edith Wharton may have written this story as a way to kill her husband or soften the ground to her extrication by divorce: the man dies on a train “journey” from Colorado back to New York–his journey to oblivion, her journey to emancipation. But in a dozen pages Wharton manages to describe with forensic acuity the psychology of physical decline as witnessed by a spouse (with the disease and the decline again a metaphor for the degradation of a marriage), then to turn the story into a mini-thriller: the narrator’s husband dies many hour before reaching New York. Bad enough that she must deal with that, his cold hand. She doesn’t want to be thrown out of the train, as would be the norm. She must come up with endless subterfuges to deceive conductor and fellow-travelers, and does. In New York she must let on or “discover” that he’s dead. She appears to faint and strike her head on his berth, leaving it unclear whether she too has reached the end of the journey or has merely found a convincing way to spare herself accusations that she’d known all along he was dead.

She was too impenetrably healthy to be touched by the irrelevancies of disease. Her self-reproachful tenderness was tinged with the sense of his irrationality: she had a vague feeling that there was a purpose in his helpless tyrannies. The suddenness of the change had found her so unprepared. A year ago their pulses had beat to one robust measure; both had the same prodigal confidence in an exhaustless future. Now their energies no longer kept step: hers still bounded ahead of life, preempting unclaimed regions of hope and activity, while his lagged behind, vainly struggling to overtake her.

The lack of privacy, the presumptions of fellow-travelers, the oppressive legalities all add up to an imprisonment for the narrator that has more to do with the unbearable conventions of marriage and a woman’s proper role within it than with the dying or dead man on the train.

No periodical publication. “The Greater Inclination,” 1899

Isaac Bashevis Singer, “Elka and Meir” (1977)

isaac singer

(George Thomas)

Another episode in Singer’s stories of odd couples, this one starring Red Elka, to whom death and all things eschatological are an aphrodisiac, and Meir, an reformed thief who becomes more guarded with the years. Both are married to invalid millstones that won’t die. Elka works as a Jewish undertaker and eventually employs Meir, enabling the couple to have their trysts on deathly runs, but Meir’s wife won;t grant a divorce. He has dreams of opening a funeral parlor with Meir in the United States (“There is no lack of females and corpses there”) but the 2014 war and other manufactured obstacles intervene, and Elka is happy taking care of the dead where she is, until she develops breast cancer. Her sister begins to work with Meir but she is as sullen and surly as Elka was jovial and talkative. She makes a move for Meir once but he rejects her. Elka wants him to marry her sister when she dies. He refuses. One day he and the sister are on a run for multiple deaths. Their vehicle crashes. They die, and the corpse of the actor they were carrying dies a second death. The multiplicity of deaths revives Elka one last time. She buries them.

The New Yorker, May 23, 1977, Old Love

Maxwell, “A Final Report” (1963)

william maxwell

It seems preposterous to be reading the American short story and not include William Maxwell, who in his younger years had that Matthew Broderick-Ferris Bueller look. Error corrected. “A Final Report” is an inventory of a life remembered at the more intimate margins of a probate report. The narrator is remembering. The life remembered is that of Pear M. Donald, who never married, who was a neighbor of the narrator’s family, and who became Aunt Donald and the narrator’s mother best friend until the two women had a mysterious falling out. The story is a look back from her old age: “It took her almost twenty years of not wanting to live anymore,” a line right out of Trevor’s “The General’s Day.” There are memories of the narrator’s childhood from the time she carried him on a pillow when he was sickly, but mostly it’s an account of her decline, her cats, her house, in the elegiac prose of terminal loneliness: “she must have subsisted on air and old memories and fear–the fear of something happening to her cats.” The story ends on what could have been a dry account of the financial settlement of her estate. It isn’t. Each dollar sign is the cremated remains of a long possession, and these final lines: “It would have been a pleasure to go through Aunty Donald’s things, up to a point, and after that probably nauseating. This is the past unillumined by memory or love. The sediment of days, what covered Troy and finally would have covered her if my brother hadn’t come and taken her away.”

Faulkner, “A Rose For Emily” (1930)

a rose for emily

Faulkner gothic. Emily Grierson is an eccentric recluse in Jefferson, Mississippi, believed to have come close to marrying a Homer Barron but failed: Barron disappeared one day. Of course he never left. She’s poisoned him with arsenic and kept him in an upstairs bedroom, the indentation in the pillow next to his suggesting an affection transcending, transgressing, death. There’d been a smell, townspeople investigated, but found nothing. It was one more reason to ridicule Emily. Previously, she’d lived with her imperious father, who’d kept her from marrying. When her father died, who knows how, she held on to his body three days before townspeople convinced her to let go. Throughout, there’s the nameless, wordless black servant, who disappears out a back door the day she dies. Old and new generations clash. If there was ever a story that illustrates Faulkner’s famous line, that the past is never dead, it’s this one, in a literal sense: Emily hangs on to Homer, her rose, because life isn’t where she is.

The Forum, April 30, 1930

Karen Russell, “The Prospectors” (2015)

orange world karen russell

There’s a delicious élan vital in Karen Russell’s style that rarely lets you down, along with an awareness that whatever you’re about to read will be original and limpid: “At the sound of my real name, I felt electrified–hadn’t I introduced myself by a pseudonym? Clara and I had a telephone book of false names. It was how we dressed for parties. We chose alter egos for each other, like jewelry.” This from the character called Aubergine, a name given her by her father who thought he was calling her something a lot more elevated. Aubergine and Clara’s ages are never given, but they’re young women in Depression Florida who leave the state after Clara keeps showing up blue from bruises. We never find out what those bruises were about (a weakness in the story, I think, a loose thread: was it that in consequential aside from being a device to propel the characters to Oregon?), only that Aubergine makes a deal with Clara: she;d never ask, but Clara would have to agree to leave the state with her and be the happily promiscuous Thelma and Louise types they like to be: “On our prospecting expeditions, whatever doors we closed stayed shut.” Invited by a suave-seeming, French-seeming aristocrat, they end up taking a ski lift to a mountain top resort, what they believed to be a mountaintop resort atop Mount Joy in Oregon, built by WPA workers. They end up at the wrong resort, one demolished in a construction accident that killed 26 workers. But the workers are there, alive and not alive, when the girls show up. That sixth sense set-up is the story, taking after the Isaac Singer notion that the dead are never really dead. If Hitler can appear at a Broadway cafeteria with his homies, why shouldn’t the dead of Company 609 of the Oregon Civilian Conservation Corps haunt the construction site that’s their tomb? It allows for imaginative explorations of the tongue, metaphorical and not so much: “Lee may not have known that he was dead, but my body did; it seemed to be having some kind of stupefied reaction to the kiss. I felt myself sinking fast, sinking far below thought. The two boys swept us toward the stairs with a courtly synchronicity, their uniformed bodies tugging us into the shadows, where our hair and our skin and our purple and emerald party dresses turned suddenly blue, like two candles blown out.” The illusion becomes a sinister vise when the dead start taking pictures. The girls decide that if they were caught by the lens, they’d be dead too. The try to escape. The structure begins to crumble. There’s a bit of Lucas-Spielbergian theatricality a-la-Indiana Jones here as they rush out to the ski lift, but they make it out. In the end I’m not so sure the story leaves us with more than a very delightful pot-au-Poe trip to a mountaintop snowy with crystalline prose. But not every story needs to be The Metamorphosis.

The New Yorker, June 1, 2015, “Orange World,” 2019

Henry James, “My Friend Bingham” (1867)

henry james my friend bingham

(© The Notebooks)

What do you do when you stupidly shoot at a seagull and kill a child instead? Why, you marry his mother. Bingham is the rich friend of the narrator. He has learned not to indulge in “this monstrous hereditary faculty for doing nothing and thinking nothing,” though he doesn’t do much or think much in this story. The doing is limited to his vacationing with the narrator, his shooting the child, and his immediately turning to devising ways to atone toward the woman, even as the child’s body is lolling about in the carriage, “the desire to obtain from the woman he had wronged some recognition of his human character, some confession that she dimly distinguished him from a wild beast or a thunderbolt.” Realism in James at times surrenders entirely to his thematic fixation, itself making props of characters. Mrs. Hicks is repeatedly described as intelligent and full of integrity, but we never see it. She’s a bit of a flat character here, and of the child himself all we know is the image of him as a “pale-faced little boy, muffled like an invalid” in the moments before he is killed. Incredibly, he is thrice blamed: first by Bingham for going on the rocks, where he supposedly shouldn;t have been, then by his mother, who says she told him he shouldn’t have gone there, then by the narrator: “Her little boy has hurt himself.” But the story is breezily, almost humorously toned, anticipating the Maupassant approach and twists, with Bingham’s marriage to Mrs. Hicks at the end, though they remain childless: he could not give her back what he took. By then he’s grown as “stout” as Pierre Bon-Bon.

Atlantic Monthly, March 1867

Cheever, “Torch Song” (1947)

scarlett johanssen cheever torch song widow

Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow.

She is the Widow, “that lewd and searching shape of death” who becomes the lover of men who love to abuse her until she revels in their demise. Her revenge. The New Yorker’s summary: “Jack Lorey knew Joan Harris from their home town in Ohio. They met when they both came to New York. This is the story of how Joan, who always appeared wholesome and generous, turned into a strange creature ready to gloat over the decay and death of her lovers – one by one. Jack realizes this after many, many years when he himself is down and out and she comes along to befriend him.” I counted seven men before be became the eighth. The story is a touch misogynistic, isn’t it? The woman as preying mantis, as serial killer.

The New Yorker, October 4, 1947

Hawthorne, “The Wives of the Dead” (1832)

nathaniel hawthorne wives of the dead

“Sisters” (Stephen Harlan).

Dreamy fiction gets on my nerves but this is a quite wonderful story of two women whose night of mourning and sorrow over the loss of their husbands isn’t defined as sleep or wakefulness. The two women live together. One husband is off fighting in Canada, the other sailing. News of both their deaths come to the wives the same day. They go to sleep in mourning. Margaret  can’t sleep and is startled by a man knocking at the door to tell her that news of her husband’s death in the ambush was premature. He’s alive and well. She goes to sleep with a smile on her face. Mary, the other wife, is awakened by a knock at the door. Somehow Margaret doesn’t wake up at this. The knocker is an old flirt, and Mary is at first incensed that he would come to woo her so soon. But he’s come by only to tell her that her sailing husband is fine, the ship did not sink after all. Mary is overjoyed, but doesn’t want to wake up Margaret, for the same reason that Margaret hadn’t wanted to wake up Mary: “Happy is it, and strange, that the lighter sorrows are those from which dreams are chiefly fabricated. Margaret shrunk from disturbing her sister-in-law, and felt as if her own better fortune, had rendered her involuntarily unfaithful, and as if altered and diminished affection must be the consequence of the disclosure she had to make. With a sudden step, she turned away. But joy could not long be repressed, even by circumstances that would have excited heavy grief at an other moment. Her mind was thronged with delightful thoughts, till sleep stole on and transformed them to visions, more delightful and more wild, like the breath of winter, (but what a cold comparison!) working fantastic tracery upon a window.” Mary watched the man who’d given her the news disappear “with a doubt of waking reality,” which  becomes ours. The final lines aren’t  more clarifying as she prepares to sleep: “Before retiring, she set down the lamp and endeavored to arrange the bed-clothes, so that the chill air might not do harm to the feverish slumberer. But her hand trembled against Margaret’s neck, a tear also fell upon her cheek, and she suddenly awoke.” The she could be either woman.


Faulkner, “Shall Not Perish” (1943)

At Colleville-sur-Mer. (© FlaglerLive)

At Colleville-sur-Mer. (© FlaglerLive)

A lesser known sequel to “Two Soldiers,” equally sentimental in a different direction, “Shall Not Perish” is a eulogy of grief through the eyes of Pete’s family, the Griers, that of Major de Spain, rich and poor, both having lost their sons, both contending with the persistence of grief and the fluidity of the senseless: Major de Spain finds relief from railing about how his son had no country anyway: “His country and mine both was ravaged and polluted and destroyed eighty years ago, before even I was born. His forefathers fought and died for it then, even though what they fought and lost for was a dream.” It’s also a story told through the prism of the Gettysburg Address’s final words, so the whiff of propaganda is as much in the air as that of cordite drifting in from the Pacific. How long will that solidarity between rich and poor persist? A 9 year old can answer that.

Pete’s mother and her surviving son, Pete’s now 9-year-old, who’d been one of the “Two Soldiers,” pay their respects to General de Spain, and Mother Mother tries to console him. De Spain doesn’t seem to know who they really are, but accepts the shared moment of grief, in which a gun plays a role I did grasp. There are lines as if plucked from Henry James: “Maybe women are not supposed to know why their sons must die in battle; maybe all they are supposed to do is just to grieve for them. But my son knew why.” So did her ancestors. The story ends in an uncomfortably chest-thumping rhapsody for the United States, maybe necessary at the time of publication, but not nearly as effective as the simpler melancholy and fortitude of “Two Soldiers.” It’s as if the last paragraphs, rousing though they are–and impossibly those of a 9 year old–were written on the same movie lot where Ronald Reagan spent his share of military service, in Hollywood. “Shall Not Perish” was rejected by eight magazines. It would have been accepted by all eight on Sept. 12, 2001 and since.

Story, July-August 1943

Jack London, “In a Far Country” (1899)

jack london in a far country

From Chaplin’s “Gold Rush.”

Naked and afraid, in the Yukon. Or: l’enfer, c’est l’autre. Or: nature indifferently demolishes man’s pretentious claims to civilization.

The story starts: “When a man journeys into a far country, he must be prepared to forget many of the things he has learned, and to acquire such customs as are inherent with existence in the new land; he must abandon the old ideals and the old gods, and oftentimes he must reverse the very codes by which his conduct has hitherto been shaped.”

But here’s the effete, civilized Percy Cuthfert. His “evil star must have been in the ascendant, for he, too, joined this company of argonauts. He was an ordinary man, with a bank account as deep as his culture, which is saying a good deal. He had no reason to embark on such a venture, — no reason in the world, save that he suffered from an abnormal development of sentimentality. He mistook this for the true spirit of romance and adventure. Many another man has done the like, and made as fatal a mistake.”

Carter Weatherbee is no better. Together they’re a drag on the expedition brawny Jean Baptiste is leading to the Klondike, in search of gold. Conditions are harsh. They come across a cabin, “one of the many mysteries which lurk in the vast recesses of the North. Built when and by whom, no man could tell. Two graves in the open, piled high with stones, perhaps contained the secret of those early wanderers. But whose hand had piled the stones?” The graves are a portent. The expedition takes a vote, whether to stay or go on. Eight vote for going on. The two “incapables” decide to stay, to the relief of the others. But the two are sealing their fate by choosing to hibernate in isolation, at each other’s lazy throats, and the rest of the clan knows it. It starts quickly: ” The clerk was as sensuous as the other was aesthetic, and his love adventures, told at great length and chiefly coined from his imagination, affected the supersensitive master of arts in the same way as so many whiffs of sewer gas. He deemed the clerk a filthy, uncultured brute, whose place was in the muck with the swine, and told him so; and he was reciprocally informed that he was a milk-and-water sissy and a cad. Weatherbee could not have defined “cad” for his life; but it satisfied its purpose, which after all seems the main point in life.”

They stop washing. They stop cooking for each other. They become gluttonous. They get scurvy. “They lost all regard for personal appearance, and for that matter, common decency.” London chronicles the descent of these two men into isolation-induced madness, their civilized past turned illusion and mockery. It’s as close as they come to experiencing nothingness, le néant: “This was the Universe, dead and cold and dark, and he its only citizen.” The dead visit them in hallucinatory encounters. Cuthfert keeps a gun trained on Weatherbee. Weatherbee wields an axe.

What with the Fear of the North, the mental strain, and the ravages of the disease, they lost all semblance of humanity, taking on the appearance of wild beasts, hunted and desperate. Their cheeks and noses, as an aftermath of the freezing, had turned black. Their frozen toes had begun to drop away at the first and second joints. Every movement brought pain, but the fire box was insatiable, wringing a ransom of torture from their miserable bodies. Day in, day out, it demanded its food, — a veritable pound of flesh, — and they dragged themselves into the forest to chop wood on their knees. Once, crawling thus in search of dry sticks, unknown to each other they entered a thicket from opposite sides. Suddenly, without warning, two peering death’s-heads confronted each other. Suffering had so transformed them that recognition was impossible. They sprang to their feet, shrieking with terror, and dashed away on their mangled stumps; and falling at the cabin door, they clawed and scratched like demons till they discovered their mistake.

Finally, paranoia provokes a fight to the death. One shoots the other. The other slashes the first with the ax. One dies on top of the other, whose death seeps in more slowly as life and heat seep out of the cabin as Cuthbert hallucinates about his paradise regained down south, “Steak, and potatoes, and green things,” while the weight of Weatherbee crushes him. The story was published five years after Germinal appeared in English. That final scene owes Zola that of Étienne and Catherine in the dark of the pit of Montsou as the body of Chaval knocks against them, though Etienne survives as Cuthfert does not.


from The Economist, Oct. 12, 2019, “The Library of Ice”:

There was one moment, towards the end of the winter, when Mr Birkbeck had just finished reading “Crime and Punishment” and found himself walking behind Mr Grimes on the ice. In his memory, the events of that day are now murky. “I find it very difficult to know whether it is a figment of my imagination or not,” he says. “There’s no question that if you put two people in a hut the size of a caravan and shut them up for nine months, you will generate intense frustration,” for which “the other person is the obvious focus.”

On this particular day, “I don’t remember ever having a row, but I do remember being intensely irritated by him.” Mr Birkbeck also recalls having an ice-axe in his hand as he trailed his hut-mate through the whiteness. “I remember getting deeply into the mind of Raskolnikov and thinking hard about this cold-blooded murder,” which Dostoyevsky’s anti-hero commits with an axe. At the same time he was pondering the question of whether good and evil truly exist. “I don’t really know whether [Mr Grimes] was in danger or not.”

Jamel Brinkley, “A Family” (2018)

UnderEl@Night-Brooklyn-1988 copy

UnderEl@Night-Brooklyn-1988, from Black & White NYC Street Photography by Matt Weber.

Brooklyn. Curtis, recently out of prison, is following Lena and her son Andre, toward whom he has designs of being a father figure. It’s his friend Marvin’s son. We don’t immediately know what’s happened to Marvin. That’ll be one of the story’s tensions. We do know Curtis is on the edge of stalking. Curtis is devising other designs on Lena, as if spying on her habits. He’d been drunk when he hit and killed a woman, driving. But he’s drinking again at a club, getting drunk, “compounding the little tragedies of the night.” He and Lena, both drunk, dance. She knows who he is. She invites him to a motel room “nearly as small as his cell had been.” Afterward he wants to talk about Andre, “but,” as in the story, “nothing he said was profound.” They don’t click. She was just seizing him up since he’d been “sniffing” around. He resents her. They split. The narration had circled around Andre and Lena. Now it circles around the memory of Marvin, youth, sex’s mysteries. The sexual act is compared to “the peeling back of language to a hard core, like the spiked stones of peaches the boys used to throw at stray dogs,” an odd analogy that beguiles down to “spiked stones of peaches.” What the hell are spiked stones of peaches? There’s a too-loose liberty like that with language, as if Brinkley is more interested in effect than meaning, when he’s not giving in to clichés (“the capacious dome of sky,” “lit up on the stage of his mind.“)

Curtis remembers how Marvin fell for Lena and “let a bitch get between us,” another cliché of adolescence. We learn there wasn’t just a death, but a fire. Oh, no: a dream sequence, smudged visions of the girl he killed, then an allusion to Marvin’s death. Curtis lives with his 60-year-old mother (he’s 35), fills in that backstory. A touching line: “The visits she’d made upstate to the prison each month revealed the rhythms of her decline, and in the intervals he guessed accurately where and when age would touch her next.” The line is marred, in the same paragraph, by the inelegance of “She was nothing to write home about anymore.” Meanwhile prison’s consequences: Curtis can’t get a job, “can’t get my own place, can’t open a goddamn bank account.“ he and Lena become a couple, but when he brings her home, “Even the scent of their sex couldn’t distract him from the pervasive smell of his mother.” He asks Lena to tell him of the night Marvin died, the way a child asks a parent to read him a story he knows by heart. She tells. Marvin was smoking in bed. Fire. He’d had a falling out with Marvin again over “that bitch” he’s now in bed with. They acknowledge not being able to love each other, then move in together, Andre calling Curtis unc, for uncle, derisively. But they grow close. “He and Lena wouldn’t love each other, but there was love they openly shared, and that would be enough, for now, to make a kind of family.”

Gulf Coast, vol. 28, issue 2. From Brinkley’s A Lucky Man: Stories, and Best American Short Stories 2018, ed. Maxine Gay.

Maria Anderson, “Cougar” (2017)

maria anderson cougarThe 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

O’Hara: “The Cold House”

The story was titled “Cold House” when it ran in The New Yorker, which summarized it this way: “Mrs. Carnavon drove several miles to visit her summer home in the middle of the winter. When she arrived she didn’t know why she had come. She climbed the stairs to her son’s room; she had thought of leaving that room the way it was. Looking at the objects that had belonged to her son; a diamond-shaped plaque, with the clasped hands and the Greek letters; a photograph of a baseball team, a magazine that he may have read, she realized how little she had known her son and that by keeping his things, she would end by hating a memory that she only knew how to love.”

We don’t know how he died. He was 24. Nor do we know how her husband died, though her husband died a long time before. The war seems too long ago or not yet (there’s an allusion to fascism in Europe). Maybe he died in Spain.

Of course it’s more powerful than that:

The New Yorker, April 2, 1938

Hemingway, “Indian Camp” (1924)

Hemingway’s passport photo, a year before the publication of ‘Indian Camp.’ (Wikimedia Commons)

In “The Hartleys” and “River” tradition of shocking endings, the dead one in this case not being a child, but the father of a child being born: a very small difference, as the man’s suicide, so willfully orphaning the child, is a form of murder.

Nick and his father board a boat that an Indian rows to an Indian camp, with Nick’s Uncle George on board as well. A woman is in a difficult labor. Nick’s father will perform a cesarean. On the way to camp, Nick’s father has his arm around the boy. Nick admires his father, deifies him, though his father will shatter his ability to withstand so much admiration when the gore of the operation overtakes the scene. The father of the baby is in a bunk above the scene, turning to face the wall. The woman has been screaming. His quiet is telling. The doctor celebrates the birth:

As they row out, Nick asks his daddy if dying is hard. “”No, I think it’s pretty easy, Nick. It all depends.” And that final, searingly beautiful image in spite and still: “In the early morning on the lake sitting in the stern of the boat with his father rowing, he felt quite sure that he would never die.” The arm stretched around him at the beginning of the story.

The Indian’s terror may have been Hemingway’s: his wife Hadley went into labor with their first child while he was away. He was terrorized at the thought of anything going wrong and of getting there too late. He transferred the fear, and took it beyond its human limits: a literary leap that serves other purposes in the story but that still seems, in and of itself, a touch gratuitous. But then, in light of Hemingway’s suicide, was it not merely premature projection? “He couldn’t stand things, I guess.” The woman meanwhile has no name, no face, no presence but those screams.


Isaac Bashevis Singer, “The Key” (1969)

Bessie Popkin isn’t the only one confused in the story. Isaac Singer is a bit confused to. He sets up his widow heroine in the opening paragraphs as a woman paranoid of dybbuks and evils all around her in descriptions that make her seem more like a woman in the creeping stages of dementia. She lives on Broadway, she despises New York, especially its colorful people. She seldom ventures past her blocks. One day returning from the market she breaks her key. She never gave a spare to the superintendent, thinking he steals. She wanders the streets, giving us a few of the city as it was around 1967, when Singer wrote the story (the picture above was by David Attie of Getty Images, taken in 1968):

She notices an accident, firefighters cleaning the street of the victim. The reader thinks she’s seeing herself, dead. As she wanders about, she thinks, passing by a church and huddling in its doorway, where she sleeps, unmolested, of making reckoning. She has an epiphany. The animals she had always despised, she now loves, embodied in a cat that purred by her. It’s night, but “the fear of death was gone, along with her fear of being homeless.” She returns home. The superintendent helps her get back in her house. She is amazed by his kindness. A neighbor had placed the milk and butter she’d left at the door in her own fridge. Again, Bessie is amazed by th kindness. She goes into her room, lies down, feels something strange rise from her feet to her breast and as if dreams of her husband telling her, “You don’t need no key here. Just enter—and mazel too.” Is she dead?

Th confusion I referred to has to do with that first page: the details Singer sets out don’t relate to anything else in the story, at least not those that imply she is forgetful or delusional.

Here’s how The New Yorker summarizes the story, which ran in the Dec. 6, 1969 issue: “Bessie Popkin, a widow for over 20 years, lives alone in her apartment near Broadway. She has become slatternly and suspicious, feeling tormented by Evil Powers. Returning from a shopping trip, she tries to open her door, but the key breaks in the lock. Leaving her groceries in the hall, she goes in search of a locksmith. Exhausted from wandering in the darkness, Bessie dozes off on a church step. Awaking late at night, she sees the moon for the first time in years and thinks of her husband Sam. In a renascence, she decides to start a new life. Reaching home in the morning, she finds that a neighbor has taken care of her groceries and that the superintendent does have a key to the apartment. She lies down on her bed, feeling a heaviness and vibrations in her body, and dreams that Sam comes. Together they walk through a corridor which leads to two mountains meeting, with sunrise or sunset between them. In the voice of the hotel owner who had led them to their bridal suite, she hears the words, “You don’t need no key here. Just enter–and mazel tov.””

The New Yorker, December 6, 1969

Malamud, “Steady Customer”

Four waitresses in a restaurant are crying. Their 28-year-old colleague Eileen had just died during a gallbladder operation. None of them wants to take over her lucrative section. The owner, Mr. Mollendorf, recruits a new waitress, Rose, from the agency, and the four girls agree to give her the section—except for one table: that of the steady customer who’d been Eileen’s for two years. The two were’t yet going together, but the waitresses were under the impression that they were going to start. Ant least that’s what they tell Rose. One of the waitresses decides to keep that table. The customer comes in, orders his usual. Doesn’t ask about Eileen. The girls are furious. The witness decides to tell him outright. All he says is: “I—I see,” his voice “curiously uncontrolled. ‘I’m sorry.’” The girls are still more furious. “They’re all alike,” one of them says. They stare at him. Customers begin starring at him:

The girls don’t know if he left because he was overcome by the news or because he was upset at the way he’d become an object of their scorn. “I’m convinced he really and truly loved her,” one of them says, closing the story.

New Threshold, August 1943.

Cheever, “The Hartleys”

john cheever

Jesus. Mr. and Mrs. Hartley travel to a ski resort with their young daughter Anne, age unknown. Anne is closest to her father when the family travels to the mountains. She refuses to learn to ski on her own. “Mr. and Mrs. Hartley spoke oftener to Anne than to each other, as if they had come to a point in their marriage where there was nothing to say.” Cheever mirrors the bleakness of the marriage in the landscape, in premonitory ways: “Its only colors were the colors of spent fire, and this impressed itself upon one–as if the desolation were something more than winter, as if it were the work of a great conflagration.” They are like the couples Wharton describes in “The Long Run,” “the listless couples wearing out their lives in shabby watering places, and hanging on the favour of hotel acquaintances.”

There are two conflagration. The first, a chambermaid hears through the transom as she approaches the Hartleys’ room–while Anne is playing elsewhere–and she hears Mrs. Hartley bemoan these trips in search of lost love:

cheever excerpt, The Hartleys

The second is that cruel, out-of-nowhere way of Cheever’s to spring a catastrophe on the austere bucolic setting: Anne is mangled and killed by the ski lift’s motor after she gets caught in the rope. From 1948.

Hemingway, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” (1936)

EH 7018P Ernest Hemingway on safari, Africa. January, 1934. Photograph in the Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

Too pretentious for my taste. A man on safari with his boring rich wife dying of gangrene and regret, a subtextual alliteration throughout the longish story. Regret for all the stories he did not write, but not as much regret for all the lies he tells, better and better with age. He wishes he had better company than this wife. Stupidest line: “So this was how you died, in whispers that you did not hear.” A lot of stream of consciousness reminiscences that sound too much like an intellectual, name-dropping safari of geographic glamor.

August 1936, Esquire.

Image credit: unattributed – Photograph in the Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. Ernest Hemingway on safari, Africa. January, 1934. Wikimedia Commons.

Hawthorne, “The Hollow of Three Hills” (1830)

Young mother, a “lady, graceful of form and fair of feature,” who’s committed some terrible deeds, probably cheated her husband, certainly abandoned him, though it seems not without cause, meets a witch in a scabrous hollow and willingly dies in exchange for a glimpse at those she’s hurt.