This story is available online at The Paris Review. It can be found under the title “Oh, Death” in the author’s short story collection It’s Beginning To Hurt and in the PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories of 2010.
I feel like there’s something about this story I didn’t quite get, so maybe if I think about it a little, I’ll get closer to it. It’s written in first person but the narrator is largely an observer, not a participant, so it’s more like an opinionated third person. Ah, the good old days, when you could have a third person narrator that actually had a point of view. That’s gone out of fashion, so these days you use a neighbor. The narrator is a shadow character. We don’t even know his name. All we know is that he moved into the Hollow five years ago (assuming the end of the story is the present, the story covers five years), he has a wife, he makes his living “gaming the system” (a phrase that is never explained), drives an hour to work (presumably he’s some kind of financial wizard?) and he owns a new Subaru; the fact that this impresses Rick, the actual main character, says more about Rick than it does about the narrator.
Rick Parker is the main character. We meet him with his dad, though Dad drops out of the story when Rick’s girlfriend, and later, wife, moves in. Rick’s an interesting character. It’d be easy to dismiss him as a rough-and-tough mountain man, but there’s more to him. He freelances, doing whatever manual labor he can get, from construction to woodcutting, but tree work is his favorite. He leaves beer cans out in the woods (the narrator calls them “gleaming spoor”) and drives an ATV that tears up the ground and leaks oil but he knows the names and properties of every plant like a biologist: “…he knew the woods up here with an intimacy that seemed its own kind of love.” He’s what I think of as a true libertarian: someone who can fix his house, hunt his dinner, and chop his own wood, and he isn’t happy about new houses snapping up land and turning his hunting ground into private property: “he hated it all, though his hatred stopped short of the actual human beings responsible for these incursions.” So while he isn’t pleased that Cora Chastine is selling off parcels that cramp his style, he describes her as a nice lady and is happy to do chores for her in the middle of the night when she calls him for help. The Tea Party should take notice of this. It makes him immensely likeable, and makes what happens to him more tragic for the reader.
In a key scene, Rick tells the narrator he’s building a cabin on the other side of the ridge. It’s state land, but so what (this is an attitude that should enrage me but I find it endearing in this case). It’s just somewhere to go. Because when you live out in a rural Hollow it’s not deserted enough for you. There’s a naturalness to this character that says something. He also claims to have seen a mountain lion, to have an impression of its paw print, though the narrator doesn’t quite believe this as he’s read there are no mountain lions around here in spite of occasional claims to the contrary.
As I read it, the downturn in his life is the fault of a bad woman. Or, a woman gone bad. Or just a woman who is damaged to the point of being unable to be good, and who he was unable to recognize as such. We discover later she has her reasons for not being able to be good, perhaps. Faye has two children when they meet, and Rick is credited with fine fathering skills.
Next comes a scene I find telling. A hurricane, “unusual in these parts,” (I believe this takes place in upstate NY, although for most of it I assumed it was the rural South, but the author, a transplanted Londoner, lives in NY and a snowy winter is described so I’m taking some liberties) strikes after Rick and Faye have another daughter. The destruction is dramatic, and Rick offers his clean-up services to the narrator, who declines on advice of counsel as Rick does not have insurance and thus could sue for injuries. A commercial crew – “professional” is how the narrator describes them – comes in and pretty much tears up the woods taking away the trees. The difference between natural damage of the hurricane and man-made damage of the clean up crew strikes me, as does the narrator’s description of Rick’s proposal which seems, to my completely naïve eye, to be far more ecologically pure, regardless of his gleaming spoor and ATV. I think this is important.
Rick and Faye marry, he slaughters a pig at the wedding (hey, it was a gift, and it was also the main course), and things start to go downhill. Things go pretty much as you’d expect from there. Rick ends up literally hoisted on his own petard; his downfall is quite sad, really, and I’d come to think of him as a good guy so it felt really tragic when he turned into a not-so-nice guy. And the narrator ends up in Rick’s cabin, possibly facing a ghost or an impossibility or a reincarnation, I’m not really sure. The last paragraph has been described elsewhere as a reversal of roles, and as a coming to terms with mortality. I’m afraid it went by me.
It’s a good story. I just don’t quite get the metaphysical level that’s been attributed to it elsewhere. It reminds me a little of “Boar Taint” a story I read in the Kenyon Review a few years ago: people, nature, and what happens between them. I think there’s been a dearth of man vs. nature stories in recent decades as writers have delved more deeply into psychological, sociopolitical and economic themes. So maybe that’s it, it’s man vs. nature, nature won, and maybe won more than I realize.
I’m intrigued by the title change. I immediately flashed on several Bach cantatas and bible verses (Oh, Death, Where is thy Sting) and possibly John Donne, though he does not include “Oh” in “Death, Be Not Proud”. But I now see there is a song by the Stanley Brothers from the film O Brother, Where Art Thou titled “O Death” (the lyrics include the “h” although the title does not) which may fit the bill more closely, as the author said he wrote the piece after a the accidental death of a neighbor. “The Hollow” is a little more obvious, since the locality is named Vanderbeck Hollow, but it’s conceivable a mountain lion’s paw print preserved in mud could have a hollow…