October 22, 2012: “Breatharians” by Callan Wink
If you love cats, you might not like this story much. In fact, if you love animals you might have a problem with it. But if you can get past that, I think you’ll find a pretty darn good story.
Here are the basics: A boy, Augie, lives on a farm with his parents. Except his mother lives in the old house—the one she was raised in on the farm—and the father lives in the new house with Augie and, sometimes, Lisa, the young woman who works on the farm and is, apparently, sleeping with Augie’s father. Also living on this farm are a gazillion cats, and Augie’s father assigns him the job of killing all the cats, with a $1 bounty per tail. The boy doesn’t have anything against cats, but he has fond memories of his dog—a recently deceased mutt who was exactly his age, having been given as a puppy to Augie when he was born.
The mother, apart from her estrangement from the father, is a bit strange. She chain smokes Tiparillos and she has decided that she no longer needs to eat. She’s become a inedite, or a breatharian, someone who consumes only air. She’s also not much troubled by Augie’s cat-killing chore.
If the story were only about killing the cats, the cruelty would be a problem, but of course it’s about much more than that. As Wink himself says in the Q&A with Callan Wink, the story is really about the boy being pulled in different directions by his parents, and also the other characters being pulled in different directions, too.
Wink had a previous story in The New Yorker, “Dog Run Moon,” that is pretty memorable. I discussed it here.
It’s hard to get past the animal cruelty in this story, but I really enjoyed it.