Tag: lost illusions

Munro, “Walker Brothers Cowboy” (1958)

alice munro 1978 walker brothers cowboy

Alice Munro, 1978.

“… and I feel my father’s life flowing back from our car in the last of the afternoon, darkening and turning strange, like a landscape that has an enchantment on it, making it kindly, ordinary and familiar while you are looking at it, but changing it, once your back is turned, into something you will never know, with all kinds of weathers, and distances you cannot imagine.” The penultimate lines in Munro’s “Walker Brother Cowboy,” the first story in her first collection of stories, the lines that sealed my conversion to her, though I was well on the way after the briefest of pages in this story of a young daughter’s realization that fathers have pasts, that sometimes those pasts took the form of intimacies that, seen again up close, even as distant shimmers of what once was, can still have the shock of something adulterous. The girl and her little brother have joined their traveling-salesman father in the poor drab backwoods of the Ontario prairie (“We play I Spy, but it is hard to find many colours.” It’s details like this that say drab without saying it.) It’s the 1930s. Their mother stays home, and after a failed sale and a bit of humiliation–the father got pee sprinkled on him–he takes a detour down, well, yes, memory lane. Nora had been his former girlfriend, his lover, something intimate enough that they’d danced and don’t a lot more. She discovers that her father does drink whisky after all, at least with a certain person, from a certain time. The girl witnesses the visit, and learns that certain things must be kept between her and her father, who earlier had described to her the formation of the Great Lakes. The immensity of time, prompting this from the girl: “The tiny share we have of time appalls me, though my father seems to regard it with tranquillity. Even my father, who sometimes seems to me to have been at home in the world as long as it has lasted, has really lived on this earth only a little longer than I have, in terms of all the time there has been to live in. He has not known a time, any more than I, when automobiles and electric lights did not at least exist. He was not alive when this century started. I will be barely alive—old, old—when it ends. I do not like to think of it. I wish the Lake to be always just a lake, with the safe-swimming floats marking it, and the breakwater and the lights of Tuppertown.”

Dance of the Happy Shades, 1968

Cather, “The Joy of Nelly Deane” (1911)

Red Cloud, Nebraska.

A moving, sad story, a touch tedious and out of focus in parts but heartbreaking as Margaret, the narrator, tells of her friendship with Nelly, the prettiest, most free-spirited girl in Riverbend, a girl of “unquenshable joy.” The scene opens as the girls are in a play. Even then Nelly is pursued by the hard and unimaginative Scott Spinny though her eyes are on Guy Franklin. Margaret spends the night with her as she didn’t want Spinny to walk her home alone. There is an undercurrent of something between Margaret and Nelly, though only Margaret projects it. It’s unspoken, unacted upon. Nelly reveals that she’s engaged to Guy Franklin, but for an unexplained reason that ends up going nowhere. Margaret and her family move to Denver, Nelly teaches sixth grade. Eight years later, Spinny manages to put his grip into her, though he seems to have nothing in common with her. He wants to change her, as do too many people in town no matter how much they love her. They want her foremost to be a Baptist, not a Methodist, and she is baptized, a ceremony Margaret attends in a visit before the marriage: “Such a sad, sad visit! She seemed changed–a little embarrassed and quietly despairing.” She had begun to die. As she prepared for the baptism, “she looked so little and meek and chastened!” Margaret in Rome 10 years later gets a letter from Mrs. Dow back in Riverbend. Nelly died a few days after giving birth to a boy, her second child. She had an eight year old daughter. Margaret, homesick–there is not one note of sorrow over the death of Nell, strangely–returns to Riverbend and sees the two children, seeing nelly in them and learning that Spinny’s obtuseness, his falling out with the two experienced doctors in town, had resulted in Nelly being cared for by a boy just out of med school who didn’t know what he was doing. Her death was preventable. But she had died long before, had it not been for her children. A town can murder a spirit like Nelly’s. The story is not distant from the lost dreams of Cather’s “Enchanted Bluff.”

Century, October 1911

Cather, “TheEnchanted Bluff” (1909)

devil's tower

Devil’s Tower (c FlaglerLive)

A group of six young Sandtown boys have their own corner of river. They hang out, swim, look at the stars, dream of their future travels. “Our water had always these two moods: the one of sunny complaisance, the other of inconsolable, passionate regret.” One among them tells the story of the Enchanted Bluff, a Devils Tower-like bluff in New Mexico once inhabited by Indians, and so called “because no white man has ever been on top of it.” The tribe’s men were down below hunting when a storm blew away the stairs that led up the bluff and a war party killed the men. The village up top starved and died, “and nobody has ever been up there since.” The six boys all pledge to make it out there one day. They never do. They grow up, take jobs, die. Tip, who told the story, is waiting until his son is old enough to go with him. And now all the younger boy thinks of is the Enchanted Bluff.

It’s an unassuming story, as simple as once upon a time, but more layered in regret and allegory. It leaves the reader wistful about that enchanted bluff too, wherever it may be in our lost youths, the severing of the wood and bark steps echoing the severing between childhood and adulthood, the impossibility of innocence.

Harper’s Monthly Magazine, 118 (April 1909)

Isaac Bashevis Singer, “A Friend of Kafka” (1968)

isaac singer a frien d of kafka

The former actor Jacoharaques Khon’s rambling story of his illusions of shadowing glamour, whether through his friendship with the unknown Kafka or his affair, a one night stand, with a countess running away from her murderous lover. Too rambling. Similar to Singer’s “Dr. Beeber.”

Forfward, June 1968, The New Yorker, November 23, 1968