Sunday, October 14, 2012

"Walker Brothers Cowboy" by Alice Munro

"Under the arms her dress is a little damp, and little drops form along her upper lip, hang in the soft black hairs at the corners of her mouth" (16). 

I looked back at this story on a whim Friday morning-- Friday, a day off, which I am still profoundly grateful for. I spent the day writing a new piece that started running through my mind at the beginning of the month (but really, as with most of what I write) has been running through my mind and in strands of things I've written for years and years. Something told me to return to Munro. I'd started writing with an older narrator in mind, but I want to travel back in time, too, to the things she recalls and the ways they still affect her, and Munro is a perfect text to study for how to deal with memory. 

She has so many stories that are written in present-tense, but are truly about a vividly remembered past. Walker Brothers Cowboy is one. The narrator is eight or nine; it is the 1930s in Canada; her family is poor. But the memory is so strong, so vivid, that the piece begins: "my father says," "We leave my mother" (3). About halfway through, the story-teller breaks through the immediacy of the past with, "The 1930s. How much this kind of farmhouse, this kind of afternoon seem to me to belong to that one decade in time, just as my father's hat does, his bright flared tie, our car with its wide running board (an Essex past its prime)" (9). It is not that the story is happening now, but that it is happening in this narrator's consciousness now, as she remembers and can put language to the things she perceived as a child but could never have said then.

The story is about her father, the mystery of him. It's very similar to Royal Beatings in theme an execution, though not so brutal. The narrator and her brother go with their father on his Walker Brothers route through the country, and they wind up at an old farmhouse where there father knows a Catholic lady. It's clear the father was involved with the woman in the past, but not clear what he's trying to get out of the visit, or what he's trying to share with his kids or the woman, Nora, by bringing his past and present together in an old kitchen with a scrubbed oilcloth-covered table. Nora dresses up for her visitors, serves their father whisky, and she dances. The line above, where the narrator notices the imperfections of Nora's body, seem to me the lines that make Nora human and real, and consequently, everyone else in the story begins to carry the same kind of mysterious dignity. 

I like to think she might have danced with the children's father in a place like the one above. Also, I think this Walker Evans' portrait captures her essence.  

I also noticed the ending on this read, and how Chekhovian Munro can be. She gestures outward, shows that the inscrutable character and past of the narrator's father is as large and wide as the changeable water and sky: 

"So my father drives and my brother watches the road for rabbits 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. 

When we get closer to Tuppertown the sky becomes gently overcast, as always, nearly always, on summer evenings by the Lake" (18). 

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor

"She should have died a child; she knows that but has never said it to the nuns, has never included in the story of herself the days that felt like years when she lay among the fallen stones. It would have lowered their spirits, although it lifts her own because instead of nothing there is what there is" (227).

This line is from the end of William Trevor's short 2002 novel The Story of Lucy Gault. Lucy should indeed have died as a child, but she lives, a little ghost-like, waiting for her parents to return. 

The plot is fantastically intriguing, the kind of story that would sell magazines or end up as a Lifetime movie or a 48 Hours news special. It's the early 1920's in Ireland. Lucy is nine and lives with her parents at Lahardane, the family estate. Irish nationals try to burn it down one night. The dogs are poisoned. Captain Gault, Lucy's father, shoots one of the young men. He tries to apologize, but the family must leave. Lucy's mother is English, and they decide to return there. The day before the move, Lucy  runs away and hides in the woods. She breaks her leg and cannot return. Everyone believes she's drowned in the sea. Her parents leave, broken-hearted, and vow never to return. 

Lucy survives and is eventually found, but her family is long-gone, and each day, it seems a little less certain they will ever return. 

Trevor writes from the points-of-view of Lucy, her parents the care-takers who find her, the lawyer who searches for the Gaults once Lucy is found, and the young man who eventually falls in love with her. Every character is revealed as possessing an enormous fount of secret love, longing, and regret. Each wants to connect with someone or something that will always remain at least a little bit hidden. Each is acutely conscious that breaks are permanent, that even the most intense relationships are imperfect and incomplete. Their love for one another is the longing kind--mawing, heart-opening wishing that beautifully echoes every human experience of loss. 

Trevor's portrayal of loss is stunning, in part, because of physical things that re-appear, not as symbols, but, more truly, as comforts that draw us back to old times, old loves we never forget. There are hydrangeas in the yard, the old house in the woods, the dark kitchen, and the boiled egg that is Lucy's first meal when she is re-discovered, all beautifully rendered signs of a surprising continuity.

Powell's (with Alice McDermott's Review), Amazon, Google Books

P.S. It's not all mellow, sad-sack longing. The love story is fantastic!

P.P.S. I'm back after months away! I'm engaged, moved, have an M.F.A. and a new job. But I haven't stopped reading. I'll be posting weekly now, every Sunday (Sunday mornings, I hope).