PEN/O.Henry 2011: Matthew Neill Null, “Something You Can’t Live Without” from Oxford American

Art (from the original Oxford American publication of the story) by Adam Hancher

The only thing that Cartwright knew about McBride, today’s prospect, was that the farmer was a sucker, though the few neighbors around there would have told Cartwright that no one knew the valley better than honest Sherman McBride – the creeks that bred trout, the caves that held flint – except for the two boys he raised off those mouthfuls of corn that rose from the fields and strained for the sun. Even so, honesty would be the man’s downfall.

I’ve never heard the term “drummer tale” before, but of course I’ve read them. Tales of travelling salesmen, carrying goods to customers either in the deep woods or in easy reach of the city, willing to do anything to make a sale. “No Flies, No Folly” from One Story was such a tale. They’re great reads, full of primal urges like making money, and asserting one’s superior cleverness over a more naïve opponent. And often they serve as a window to another time and place – in this case, rural West Virginia in the late 19th century.

Cartwright is the drummer of this tale, a salesman of farm tools who replaces a drummer shot by a farmer who caught him with his wife. Cartwright finds his “sucker list” and does quite well off it, by dubious means: “Truthfully, he bullied them into buying the tools, or, if they would not be bullied, he casually insulted the farmers’ methods in front of their wives.” But his skill, though lucrative, is something of a trap: “the more success he found, the more desolate the places the Company sent him, and the higher the profits they came to expect.”

He sets his sights on McBride, and finds first his sons, identical except one is missing a finger, working the fields. “The boys wore homespun, bearing the scurvy look of those who live without women.” He meets McBride and convinces him he can’t live without the new plow he’s got tucked away in his wagon, the last piece of merchandise he has to sell this trip. He isn’t sure why McBride is on the sucker list; he isn’t a drunk, or stupid, he seems pretty upstanding, in fact, but he was on the list, and Cartwright assumes it’s for a reason.

When it comes time to do the deal, turns out McBride doesn’t have enough money for the plow. He offers half, then brings out a clipping. We don’t find out yet what the clipping says, but it’s good enough to send Cartwright with the nine-fingered son (who is forthright and casual about his missing finger, lost to a bear trap: ” he hadn’t lived in a civilized town yet. He hadn’t learned shame”) into a cave down to the bowels of hell, where we discover the clipping is an offer from the Smithsonian on fossils and prehistoric animal remains. Cartwright faces a huge bear skull buried in the rock of the cave:

Cartwright ran his thumb against the sharp ring of the occipital bone and the worn points of fang, tracing the fissures of the skull that rippled like stitches under his touch. It thrilled him. He couldn’t wait to turn it over in his hand. He was amazed there were such things in the ground, waiting to be dug out like potatoes….

A scene came drifting up from the lake bed of memory. When Cartwright was seven years old his father had bought a gold locket for his wife’s birthday from a drummer passing through. A smile they hadn’t seen before took hold of her face, but a week later, his father stood clutching the doorframe, looking shamefully at where the false gold stained her pale skin, like gangrene. He tore it from her neck and threw it down the well. It was the one time his father cried in front of them. The frightened children fanned into the woods. That night, Cartwright’s father had to come looking for him with a lantern to fetch him back home.

The juxtaposition of those two events puzzled me, but then, as Cartwright tries to liberate the skull from the rock, it turns to dust, and I wasn’t puzzled any more.

The two leave the cave and at its mouth, he finds McBride and the other son. He tells them the contract is voided. McBride has bought the sales pitch hook, line, and sinker, and wants it; he sees it as liberating him from labor, increasing his yield, and freeing him from the soil. Ah, so this is why he’s on the sucker list: he is that vanishing breed, the completely gullible, the believer. And now, he can’t have the plow he’s been told will change his life.

While they’re thrashing this out, one of the sons finds the sucker list, fallen out of Cartwright’s pocket during his exit from the cave. McBride shoots him; they bury him with pine branches, steal the plow – and the next year discover the plow hasn’t made the slightest bit of difference. Cartwright’s remains – belt buckle, gold tooth – are pillaged over the decades, and eventually a woman gives “his rib cage a Christian burial…. Is only his torso in heaven? She wondered. Do his legs dance in hell? But she was too frail to go searching for the rest, though his pelvic bone rested hear a prominent fork in the road, gathering dry leaves like a crock.”

It’s a completely engaging story, and full of wonderful side trips about passenger pigeons (“Cartwright’s family took up pine stobs, brooms, and pokers, beating pigeons to death by the dozens, so numerous and stupid they were…. They gorged themselves, like every other hard-up family from Canada to Texas. It was nothing less than manna. … There were damn few pigeons left now and someday the sky would be evacuated of everything but rain, airships, and stars”) and other things we do to our planet to make it worth something, only to find, to our surprise somehow, that we have less and less.

The story for the most part is told in close third person with Cartwright as the POV character, but it takes several brief jaunts to visit the thoughts of McBride and a conversation his sons have after their first meeting with the drummer. At the end, after Cartwright is killed, of course he can no longer be the POV character so it switches to a broader narrator. It’s a bit disconcerting, but not overly so. The story is strong enough to carry it.

Null’s Contributor Notes state his main theme:

…the crisis of people who love the land, but are faced with the prospect of selling or destroying some aspect of it to translate the landscape into dollars. This is West Virginia’s story….Despite our common myths and party rhetoric, extractive industry has failed to improve the lot of West Virginians.”

This story drives this home again and again, from the passenger pigeons to the foxes to the plow to the bear skull to Cartwright’s belt buckle and gold tooth. Yet it doesn’t seem preachy at all. In fact, I’ll admit if I hadn’t read the notes, I might not have come up with this reading. Now that I have, I’m fascinated.

An ecological metaphor. And here I thought it was just a drummer tale.

5 responses to “PEN/O.Henry 2011: Matthew Neill Null, “Something You Can’t Live Without” from Oxford American

  1. Pingback: BASS 2011: Beginning « A Just Recompense

  2. Karen, thank goodness for your breakdown. Just curious, how many times did you read this story? I might have come to the same conclusions if I wasn’t bogged down looking up works in my dictionary. Thank goodness for on-line dictionaries, because instead of typing to you right now, I might still be stuck looking up words. I’m exaggerating but you get the point.

    When I started reading this story I thought, “Oh, brother, another farm story. Please don’t send me to the dictionary with all your technical jargon of tool parts or names of obscure plants and flowers. Sometimes it’s like these writers go to some gardening encyclopedia and find the most obscure plant they can think of and then say, that’s it!, and pepper their story with descriptions of a wilting Speaker-mandler trees with Ottasaqua rosebuds. Null’s story didn’t go to this extreme, but pretty close.

    Let’s start with the word drummer. Really? What’s wrong with salesman? This is the type of crap that makes people pass literary fiction right over and head for James Patterson. And you know what, I don’t blame them. And it’s a shame. Because literary fiction has so much to offer.

    And then the elitism of it all, don’t get me started. This is a story about the common man. McBride and his sons were hardworking Americans that were busting their butts to make a living off the land, simple people, down to earth, regular, everyday people. Why does the prose of this story NOT reflect that? Hello? Is this brain science? No! What do we get instead? We get landscapes that “undergird.” Undergird? Are you kidding me? Wasn’t it Raymond Carver who said sometimes the right word isn’t always the most impressive word. (I’m sure I’m butchering his quote, but you get the point.) The word may not jump off your tongue or make you want to read it three or four times, but the words themselves shouldn’t draw attention to themselves. Everything, for the most part, I believe, should be sacrificed for the story. If not, you risk getting people like me who, instead of talking about the story, spend three or four paragraphs writing about the pretentiousness of words like “flintlock,” “undergird,” and “drummer.”

    At least I know what the word “shale” means now. And no thanks to this story. The thanks goes to the Internet. That “Images” tab works wonders. I mean, really people, look at Chekhov’s stories, Tolstoy, William Trevor, they use very simple words, and yet their stories carry a boatload of insight.

    Also, not sure if it’s just me, but just on a sentence level, the writing felt very jarring. I felt like I needed to read sentences twice, like I was missing something. This is a minor complaint. Maybe this is his style. I mean Faulkner doesn’t exactly produce easily digestible sentences either, so go figure.

    But other than that, the story wasn’t half bad.

    Dwayne 🙂

    • Hiya Dwayne – I saw your post in the Zoe office but I’ll answer here – one of the reasons I blog about stories is so I’m forced to read them until I understand them – or I’m willing to give up and admit I don’t understand. I usually read a story through – “casual reading” I’d call it – then go back and read it carefully, underlining, starring, circling names (especially for first-person narrators where the name may be said only once and is buried deep in the story), drawing family trees in complicated family stories, whatever is needed – studying the story. Then I go looking for my “first quote” which means re-reading the underlined and starred parts. Then I sketch out my impressions in typed notes – it’s about the characters, or where the turning point is, or whatever seems most important to me about the story as a whole. Then I google around and see if I can find the story online, if I can find any author interviews, if I can find any comments from other bloggers or reviewers. Sometimes I see things I missed. Other times I find I was on the right track. Occasionally I see something I strongly disagree with but it’s interesting enough to include anyway. And there may be other information from the story that I want to include. Then I write up my comments, which I do usually over the course of a couple of days, writing a version, going back the next day to see how it sits with me, maybe doing that a few times until I feel like the comments I’ve made are ones I can live with. The whole process takes maybe two to six hours over the course of two to three days.

      What, you thought I just read and popped out a post? Nah. I’m not that smart. I have to work at it. But that’s why I’m doing this, to learn to read better, to develop my aesthetic sense.

      This particular story opened with a ridiculously confusing paragraph. “Ace drummer” was the phrase that did me in. To me, an ace drummer is the guy who can really pound on the cymbals and the snares. But that didn’t make any sense. The whole paragraph made no sense. I read it three or four times, still had no idea what was going on, then read on a little. Eventually I realized – the setting was back in the 19th century, a drummer was a travelling salesman, and everything else fell into place. It wasn’t until I got the image of the guy in the rock band out of my head that I could proceed. And I had to do that by moving ahead on faith until things clicked.

      I don’t worry about every word. The first few paragraphs contain a lot of things I can’t really define: what’s a buckboard wagon? I know what a wagon is, I’m not sure about a buckboard. The trace? Oilskin? Wagon tongue? Ironweed? Seven Sisters? Gelded? (I have a vague idea about that but I don’t want to think about it). Blood bays? Chert? None of that sounds familiar. Does it matter? It’s setting a stage, and if I don’t know what kind of plant ironweed is, well, I’ll find out some day, or maybe I’ll skip over it for now. In this case, I got a sense of a lot of nature. I’m not a nature girl. But I can appreciate that there’s a lot of nature in a story, and that means something. I also don’t know what an arroyo, a butte, or a mesa is (or even a canyon, to be technical – everyone knows the Grand Canyon, but can anyone define the word?). I used “gorge” in my Drowning story, and I’m not even sure what a gorge is (that’s bad writing, btw).

      Sometimes it matters what the words mean. Sometimes it’s enough to just keep going and you’ll either pick them up by context or you’ll be curious enough to find out later. I’m ok with this kind of reading-on-trust. When I read “Haircut” for instance, I didn’t really know what a “fade” was, but it didn’t bother me, and later I looked it up and found it was a hairstyle, one I’m totally familiar with, I just didn’t know what it was called. That’s something I love about reading – I learn new things all the time. One of the highest praises I can give a story is that I learned something. Maybe just that a drummer is a 19th century term for a salesman. And next time I read a story with the word “drummer” in it, I’ll recognize it, and I’ll associate it with this story, and eventually I’ll build a mental database for what that term connotes – the era, the aura, the meaning. By the way – I did some googling, and “the word referred to their enterprising, energetic, and possibly annoying tendency to ‘beat the drum’ for whatever product they were selling.” Drumming up business, so to speak. See? It’s fun! But I’m a word geek. It was sufficient, for the purpose of reading the story, to know it meant peddler or travelling salesman.

      And what’s wrong with salesman? Because there’s a connotation to “drummer” that “salesman” doesn’t have; for one thing, it takes it away from the familiar. Drummer is the term that would’ve been used in the time the story is set. The narrator of the story is in that time. It works for this story, this narrative voice. It lets us know we’re in a time and place where things are different from our current lives, and we need to take context into account as we read. An isolated customer, staying overnight in his barn, getting shot for calling him a sucker, these are things we don’t know much about today (well, maybe the getting shot part), and “drummer” is part of the setting, as much as the ironweed and the buckboard wagon.

      At least that’s my theory. Please keep in mind I have no idea what I’m talking about. 😉

      You know, maybe this just wasn’t the story for you. I’ve had plenty of those, I just don’t get them. Chalk it up and move on. But what you can’t do is insist the story be written for your tastes – because there are plenty of other tastes out there, each as valid as yours. There’s joy in finding the writer who writes what you want to read, but there’s value in knowing what else is out there, too.

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