Basil Bebbington from Bakersfield isn’t good at basketball, wood-shop, or talking to girls, but he’s fair at physics, and guts his way through Technical College, and lands a job grinding lenses for Bakersfield Optometry, and his parents moved to Tampa, and Hurricane Andrew floods their basements, and by age twenty-two Basil begins to worry that he’s missing out on things – women, joy, et cetera – so on a whim he applies for a job as an optics technician at an Observatory on the summit of Mauna Kea on the island of Hawaii.
Now that’s how you zip through time, while still accomplishing a lot.
I could have done without the alliteration, but it’s probably there for a reason. It gives the paragraph a sing-song quality that starts things out on a light note, until we get into Basil’s deficiencies and the woes of his life. The literal grinding job makes his work seem like a grind (fun fact: Spinoza was a lens grinder, and used some concepts in his philosophy). His job also adds a touch of irony in that his work assures the correct reception of signals, while Basil himself misreads signals throughout the story. The mention of Hurricane Andrew and Basil’s age places us in time (1992). And then there’s Mauna Kea, the fourteen-thousand foot summit on which is situated the astronomical observatory that serves as the setting for the first couple of pages.
Elevation – literally, the measure of height – becomes a metaphor on which Doerr strings a story of this guy whose biggest mistakes, fears, and disappointments are the result of his misinterpretation of signals, his tendency to imagine things as better -or worse – than reality. All of which is set to a backdrop of Stevie Wonder, as the advice Basil gets from his coworker Muriel is: “When you get lonesome, put ‘Higher Ground’ on repeat.”
Muriel and Basil work opposite week-long shifts in the Observatory, overlapping only by a one-hour swap. That’s enough for Basil to become quite taken with her over a few months:
One hour each Sunday: that’s all the time he ever sees her, sixty minutes on the boundaries of their respective shifts. Yet on the calendar of his life, what hours have shone more brightly? Muriel never touches him, or asks about his week, or notices his haircuts, but neither does she mention a boyfriend, and she always meets him at the door looking woozy and grateful, and ensures the cot in the control room has clean sheets, and one wonderful Sunday, after they have traded shifts for five months, she pokes him on the shoulder and says, “I always say, Basil, if you want something, you need to just go for it.”
Now, I’ll admit, there’s some room for interpretation in that comment, though, given her restraint otherwise, there’s also a lot of room for caution. While Muriel seems to be passionate only about the search for other planets in the universe, an invitation for coffee wouldn’t be out of line. Unfortunately, Basil goes full-on Say Anything, “cuts fifty paper hearts from the pages of a protocol manual” with gushy lines like I love you like a fish loves water written on them, and leaves them all over the work space where they will surprise Muriel fifty times anew as she opens cabinets, pours cereal, and uses the bathroom during her next shift. Basil is fired for “inappropriate advances.” Going for it has its risks. Shades of Misbehaving Men from BASS 2020 – and, yes, this story was listed as one of the Other Distinguished Stories in that volume.
Stylistically, it’s notable that Doerr inserts a capitalized sentence before the last paragraph of this section:
AROUND THIS TIME OTIS STARTS WEARING AN OFF-BRAND BLACK SUPERHERO CAPE DAY AND NIGHT.
Like the alliteration in the first sentence, I’m not sure how to react to this, but it’s so unavoidable it must be important. It turns out to be a sentence that occurs a page later, in a different life context. It’s one of three such out-of-place sentences in the piece; two are in advance of their actual occurance, and one is after. It strikes me as saying something about time – just as the piece’s present-tense voice does – but I’m not really sure what to make of it. There are links to scientific phenomena: First, on a large scale: by the time we see a star or planet or nebula, years – centuries, hundreds of centuries, depending on distance – have passed; and, on the smallest scale, in the quantum (sub-atomic) world, experiments have shown that effects can precede cause. Maybe the point is that in our minds, we sometimes have premonitions that would be useful if we knew how to interpret them, and of course memory lets us connect to the past. But that’s weak.
Then I looked at content: one seems to be a warning of a difficulty that will present itself; one is simply a statement Basil makes at a highly emotional moment; and one can be thought of as a signal of something unknown, something anticipated with dread. Signals of various kinds show up throughout the story, and Basil has already demonstrated a deficiency in his interpretation of signals. Is the idea to throw the reader signals out of context and see how well we interpret them? If so, I’m clearly as deficient as Basil.
In any case, Basil returns to sea level in Idaho, working at a Lenscrafters. This seems quite a comedown, professionally and emotionally. He gets married, and has a son, Otis, who indeed does become fixated on his superhero cape, while his wife takes to Wild Turkey.
And another worry, one outside of his family, presents itself. The comic store across the street from his house has been sold, and a sign proclaiming the Master’s Castle is Coming Soon, complete with metal skulls with high-beam lights shining out of their eyes, seems to promise something less than wholesome. Basil fixates on some kind of sex club for some reason, but remember, his skill at signal interpretation is not to be trusted (I would have thought gaming or MMA, but my signal interpretation skills aren’t so great either).
… it’s hard not to worry that the Master’s Castle is going to be some kind of S&M dungeon, that soon Clark Street will be clogged with perverts in hot pants, that Basil’s already battered home value will sink to zero, that his wife needs the kind of help he can’t give, that his son might be damaged in some fundamental way, and that his life has descended to a nadir only a few, very particularly sorry lives reached.
The use of the word “nadir” hammers home the point that this is not higher ground.
But the promise of higher ground is just around the corner: Basil’s wife comes out of her alcoholic stupor long enough to declare herself ready to “clamber back on top of the heap”. She has all sorts of plans for the day, including taking Otis, the cape-wearing son, to his therapy appointment after school. Another signal for Basil to interpret, and he takes it at face value. But on his way to higher ground, he trips: he discovers Muriel, the Muriel of Mauna Kea and of his heart, is now leading a NASA team of exoplanetary observers (I’m guessing this is based on the Kepler and K2 projects) and has written a book, Memoirs of a Planet Hunter. He downloads it and discovers there’s only a vague mention of a co-worker who may, or may not, be him. Ouch.
Then he realizes it’s way past time for his wife to be home with their son.
At this point, the story, as a PW reviewer put it “veers off into sentimentality.” Yes, it does get a little precious with Basil having his epiphany – realizing flying to Florida to stay with his parents is not a good idea – and any time you have a damaged kid trying to be brave and leading the adult to reason, it’s going to be kind of schmaltzy. But I think the story’s tone has been light enough to handle the sweetness without cloying.
The Master’s Castle turns out to be nothing like the horror Basil envisioned. The final moment reprises Basil singing “Higher Ground” at sea level, watching a plane fly overhead – maybe at fourteen thousand feet? – giving the impression that he’s caught on, that higher ground has nothing to do with elevation. I don’t have much hope that he can keep his signals straight for long; there’s still his wife to deal with, and while Otis might have had a moment, he’s not yet done with his cape.
I mentioned in my Intro to this volume that I read both the first story, which ends on a devastated note of fear and existential threat, and this one, which at that time seemed to go through the darkness and come out on a note of hope. But: “Then I read it again and thought, this isn’t hope, it’s delusion.” I’m still undecided, but I think that’s how the story is written. Will Basil go back to believing in higher ground, but find himself following all the wrong signals to get there? Or is this a moment of change? Doerr has left it up to us to decide. What we decide may depend more on our iimmediate emotional state as on the story. But at least it offers the possibility of hope.
It’s not particularly relevant to the story, but it was originally published in the final print issue of Tin House. Several years ago, I subscribed to a small selection of print litmags for a couple of years; Tin House was my favorite. Each issue beautifully produced, with great content, and, silly as it sounds, I loved the smell of it, probably due to the use of color ink. Realizing the source of this story renewed the pang I felt at its closure. Pushcart often includes pieces in honor of writers who have left this world recently; it’s fitting they honor literary magazines that have passed, as well.