The New Yorker: “Ox Mountain Death Song” by Kevin Barry

October 29, 2012: “Ox Mountain Death Song” by Kevin Barry

Although the opening of this story confused me—I guess I was supposed to know that Barry is Irish or that the Ox Mountains are in Ireland—I was immediately attracted to the language. (I’ll come back to that in a minute.) There were fresh combinations of words and some expressions I didn’t understand (and, at the time, didn’t guess that this was because they were Irish) but that still appealed to me. The first line is “He had been planting babies all over the Ox Mountains since he was seventeen years old.” Baby what, I wanted to know. Oh. I get it. Babies. “Well he had the hair for it, and the ferret grin, and there was hardly a female specimen along that part of the Sligo-Mayo border that hadn’t taken the scan of his hazel glance, or hadn’t had the hard word laid on, in the dark corners of bars, or in the hormone maelstrom of the country discos, or in untaxed cars, down back roads, under the silly, silly moonlight.” And so on.

The language is often lyrical, and Barry alludes to this in the Q&A with Kevin Barry: “The rhythm of the prose works off refrain and reprise. At the level of the sentence, what interests me above all is its sound. I will happily subvert a sentence’s meaning for the sake of how it sounds, and then just go with whatever change results; I’ll let the sound dictate the story.”

I believe that. While the language is sometimes a little difficult to follow, it’s always beautiful. In the Q&A Barry also tells us that he is fond of introducing both genre elements—he sees this story as something of a Western—and non-realistic elements. Here, one of the two main characters does seem somewhat supernatural, and the other is sure he can sense what is going to happen.

The story is almost beside the point, but there’s this: Sergeant Tom Brown is pursuing “a Canavan”—part of a notorious family because he has the sense that there’s going to be a killing. He tracks Canavan down to the home of a woman who has been beaten and she reluctantly tells Brown where Canavan might be found. Importantly, Canavan has cancer and is going to die, which makes him even more dangerous. (Although he’s only 29, he’s been told that treatment would make his hair fall out—his beautiful hair!—and render him impotent. So he’s opted to forego the treatment.)

Barry tells us that both characters are something of a “type.” But what do you suppose is the significance of Canavan’s cancer, or that Brown, at 67, is also nearing the end of his life. Are the types disappearing? Is this aspect of Western Ireland disappearing? And is that what it means at the end when Brown finally confronts Canavan?

The New Yorker: “Breatharians” by Callan Wink

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.

The New Yorker: “The Semplica-girl Diaries” by George Saunders

October 15, 2012: “The Semplica-girls Diaries” by George Saunders

It’s Saunders, so you know there’s going to be something strange about this story. And there is. (The story is available to read for free online, so hurry on over to the magazine and come back.)

A father of 3 young children is having money problems, despite the fact that his wife’s father is a wealthy farmer (“Farmer Rich,” he calls himself), and yet he longs to satisfy the consumerist impulses of his daughter who is in competition with a wealthy schoolmate. When he wins $10,000 in the lottery, instead of paying off his maxed-out credit cards, he buys a lawn make-over, including the installation of several “semplica-girls,” basically imported young woman strung up on wires. But one of his daughters is appalled by these human lawn-ornaments and sets them free—which costs the guy a lot of money he hadn’t counted on.

That’s basically the story. Saunders says the idea came to him in a dream, including the word “semplica.” And it’s clear that part of the point is that these girls represent an immigrant underclass. I would go so far as to say that they represent human trafficking, although Saunders doesn’t say that in the Q&A with George Saunders. The tension here is the question we have no answer for—life is better in this world than it was for them at home, and they can send money back to help their families at home. So does that justify what we do? The same is true for the millions of people, men and women, who leave their poor countries in search of work as domestic servants and laborers in wealthier countries. The people are often quite happy because they’re working and making money. But does that make it right? The story doesn’t answer that question because it’s basically unanswerable.

But I like the fact that Saunders has a go at it. The story is worth a read.

The New Yorker: “Fischer vs. Spassky” by Lara Vapnyar

October 8, 2012: “Fischer vs. Spassky” by Lara Vapnyar

After reading this story, I figured it was a novel excerpt because it doesn’t really end. The contributor notes say that Vapnyar has a new novel coming out next year, so then I was certain. But the Q&A with Lara Vapnyar says nothing about this being an excerpt, so I just don’t know. If it’s a story, I don’t like it much. If it’s a novel excerpt, I see some potential for it. (The story is available to read for free, so you can judge for yourself.)

The story begins with Marina on her way to see a client. It turns out that she’s some kind of home health aide, visiting Elijah, who is watching the news accounts of the death of Bobby Fischer. Fischer’s death brings to Marina’s mind an episode from 1972, the year of the Fischer-Spassky chess championship in Moscow. She and her husband Sergey are thinking of emigrating. As Soviet Jews that would mean first going to Israel, but eventually to the United States, which they have imagined is some kind of heaven. But they’re both really into the chess match, at first rooting for Fischer because he’s some kind of symbol of the US to them. But then Sergey makes an odd wager, of sorts—if Fischer wins, they will emigrate. If Spassky wins, they’ll stay put. And Marina begins to think that she likes it where she is, so she gets angry at Sergey for rooting for Fischer.

Jumping back to the present, it turns out that they did emigrate, that Sergey died of a heart attack shortly after their arrival in the United States, and that she gave birth to a daughter after Sergey’s death. (The daughter seems irrelevant to this story, which is one reason I was sure it was an excerpt.) But there she is, helping old Elijah, while he talks about how Fischer had become this crazy old anti-Semite.

The end. Huh?

In the Q&A, Vapnyar tells us that the story is about the dual disappointments in life in the US and Bobby Fischer. That doesn’t seem to be enough to make this story work, though. Does it?

The New Yorker: “Jack and the Mad Dog” by Tony Earley

October 1, 2012: “Jack and the Mad Dog” by Tony Earley

I completely understand Earley’s impulse here. He was interested in a story about man being bitten by a dog, but there wasn’t enough going on there to make it work. Jack of Beanstalk fame popped into his head and the story took a different, more interesting direction. Then add the meta-fictional elements, and you’ve got what I think is a pretty good story.

Jack is waiting for the farmer’s wife because she puts out for $4 after the farmer has gone to bed. But the farmer doesn’t go to bed. Instead, he sits on his porch, smoking and waiting. Meanwhile, Jack finds some moonshine, which he drinks because he’s always finding stuff that’s useful in his adventures. He drinks the stuff, goes numb, and suddenly he can see things.

He sets off down the road and eventually he comes to a bridge and a black dog materializes on the bridge. It talks. It looks like Jack is done for, but he’s always survived before, he says. The dog retorts that this time it’s different, and it seems as though the dog might represent some kind of karma for Jack’s misdeeds. They struggle and Jack runs; then he encounters twin girls who claim that they are the miller’s daughters and that Jack has slept with them both. And then there are more girls—all nameless—whom Jack has wronged. Basically, Jack’s run of stealing and cheating and whoring has come to an end.

In the Q&A with Tony Earley, the author (who was on faculty at the Sewanee Writers Conference the last time I was there) discusses how the old English folk tales were enhanced with Scots-Irish elements in Appalachia, but now don’t really survive in any real form—it’s all artificial preservation. And so maybe that’s what we’re seeing in this story: the death of folklore.

The New Yorker: “The Third-Born” by Mohsin Hamid

September 24, 2012: “The Third-Born” by Mohsin Hamid

As far as I’m concerned, this “story” has two strikes against it. First, it is an excerpt from a forthcoming novel (about the boy in the story) and is okay, I suppose, as an excerpt but unsatisfying as a story. Second, the author uses a second person that strays into the omniscient, and for me fails on both counts. I get that the narrative voice might want to move away from the boy’s consciousness (which is what the author says in the Q&A with Mohsin Hamid), but then why not do it in third person.

As I’ve frequently argued, there really ought to be a reason for second person if that’s what the author chooses, and whether it makes sense depends on the implied narrator. Often, second person is used when the narrator is speaking to himself—either now or at a different time in his life. And that works, sometimes, if, for example, there has been some trauma that has the effect of separating aspects of the narrator—sort of an out of body experience. That doesn’t seem to be the case in this story, although perhaps it is in the novel (but that doesn’t explain the wandering into omniscience). Another way second person is used is the true second person—when a narrator is addressing someone (other than himself). That might be the case here, and might help explain the omniscience, but we have no clues in this excerpt as to who the narrator might be.

But I’ve forgotten the story. It begins with a young Pakistani boy very ill with Hepatitis. He and his siblings and mother live in the country while his father works as a cook in the city. For some reason, the father decides they should all move into the city with him, the result of which is that the sister has to go to work, and then the brother, while the boy remains in school, thanks to his birth order.

And that’s about it . . .

I have to say, this does not make me want to read the novel.

The New Yorker: “The Last Few Kilometres” by Leonard Tsypkin

September 17, 2012: “The Last Few Kilometres” by Leonard Tsypkin

I don’t recognize the name of the writer, from Minsk, who died in 1982. The contributors’ notes tell us that this story was written in 1972.

It’s behind the paywall, so let me summarize it: an elderly man (he didn’t bring his dentures) pays a visit to his mistress in Moscow. He’s now on his way home by train, and his observations of the scenery and his fellow passengers are interspersed with his recollection of the evening. It seems as if his visit was perfunctory—he was keen to get on the train to go home. He didn’t want to eat, but he had to out of politeness. She served him meat blini and in the process he dropped a chicken drumstick on the floor. They made love—the event is dealt with quickly and cursorily—and they talk, although he wants a cigarette. And then he leaves.

On the train he describes the former suburbs that have been absorbed by the city, and all the rest of the drab view outside the window.

Any suggestions for what the story means would be just a guess—does the old man represent the Soviet Union in 1972? Or is he just an old man?

The New Yorker: “The Casserole” by Thomas McGuane

September 10, 2012: “The Casserole” by Thomas McGuane

Mercifully short, the story is about a couple traveling to the wife’s parents’ ranch to celebrate the couple’s 25th anniversary. Along the way we learn that they never wanted children, that he’s a miser—they’ve saved and saved and so have a nest egg, and yet the drive a junker of a car, that they don’t seem to agree on much. In fact, it seems that the husband believes that his opinions are their opinions, but by the time we get to the ranch we know that he’s pretty much wrong about that. And then there is a surprise ending—Deborah Treisman in the Q&A with Thoms McGuane calls it an O. Henry ending, but McGuane doesn’t seem to know what that means—which I won’t reveal, but it has something to do with the story’s title.

Apart from the sociological commentary about the inheritance problems facing Montana ranchers, and the cute ending, which is a bit predictable, there’s not much meat on this story. As I say, it’s mercifully short.

The New Yorker: “Birnam Wood” by T. Coraghessan Boyle

September 3, 2012: “Birnam Wood” by T. Coraghessan Boyle

Like last week’s Alice Munro story, this one is available for free online. But here’s the scoop: Nora has returned from college to give it another try with her boyfriend Keith, a substitute teacher. (It’s the late sixties or early seventies, and the era supposedly has some bearing on how we feel about these characters.) They spend the summer together in a rented shack, but have to move when the colder weather arrives. They luck into a house-sitting gig on a lake in a development called Birnam Wood, and although they bicker about money Nora gets a job as a hostess in a restaurant. One night Keith hangs out in the bar there waiting for her to get off work. He drinks a lot and meets a guy named Steve, confessing to Steve that Nora is sometimes a pain in the ass. Steve leaves and Keith keeps drinking, so that Nora has to drive them home. And it’s snowing. They get home and Keith stays up but Nora goes to bed. The phone rings—it’s Steve, calling for Nora. Then Steve arrives with a bottle of tequila, hoping that Nora will share it with him. She agrees, and Keith goes out into the snow until he comes to another house where he watches through the window as an older couple get ready for bed. We’re left to guess what happens between Keith and Nora, but in my view it doesn’t look good.

As I was reading the story, I wanted to understand the title. Why Birnam Wood, with its echo of Macbeth? Boyle touches on that in the Q&A with T.C. Boyle, but his answer doesn’t seem satisfactory to me. This Birnam Wood isn’t marching to Dunsinane. And where’s Lady Macbeth? How is this in any way Shakespearean?

The contributor notes tell us that Boyle has a new novel coming out. I was hoping that he’d tell us that this story is an excerpt from that novel, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. It’s just a story. And as a story, to me, it’s flat.

I welcome differing opinions.

The New Yorker: “Amundsen” by Alice Munro

New Yorker 8.27.12August 27, 2012: “Amundsen” by Alice Munro

This isn’t going to be one of my favorite Munro stories. It’s about Vivien Hyde, a young woman from Toronto who takes a job as a teacher at a children’s TB Sanatorium in the north woods shortly before the end of WWII. She arrives, is given her assignment by Dr. Alister Fox (known as Reddy by the daughter of one of the staff), and begins work. She watches Fox, and eventually he invites her to dinner, then later to bed, then to marry. She goes along because she seems to fallen in love, despite his evident flaws.

But then there’s a problem.

The ending is standard Munro. After the climax there’s a jump ahead in time—ten years in this case—and we get a glimpse of the future and a non-resolution to whatever the problem was that the characters had to deal with. Fox relates better to men than to women, but is that meant to suggest a reason why he didn’t go through with their wedding?

I don’t know, but it isn’t a satisfying conclusion, in my opinion. I understand that the war is relevant, the isolation of the woods and the sanatorium, but I fail to understand Dr. Fox’s behavior.