Alice Munro: “Leaving Maverley” from The New Yorker, 11/28/11

New Yorker illustration by Jean-Francois Martin

New Yorker illustration by Jean-Francois Martin

He said that he didn’t get too involved in the movies…He seldom followed the plots.
“Plots,” she said.
He had to tell her what that meant – that there were stories being told…He was called upon not to tell any specific story – which he hardly could have done anyway – but to explain that stories were often about crooks and innocent people and that the crooks generally managed well enough at first by committing their crimes and hoodwinking people singing in nightclubs (which were like dance halls) and sometimes, God knows why, singing on mountaintops or in some other unlikely outdoor scenery, holding up the action.

For me, this story was like a train ride during which I was so intrigued by the person I was speaking to when I boarded, then so engrossed in the magazine I had with me, then so amused the tale the conductor told as he punched tickets, then so surprised by the unusually tasty sandwich (Avocado! Westphalian ham! Brie! Mustard greens! Thick crusty multigrain bread!) served in the dining car, and so soothed by the music leaking from the earbud of the kid sitting next to me, that I was surprised when I got to my destination – “What, here already?” And when I go to explain why I enjoyed the trip, it all falls apart, because, well, the pleasures were very small and self-contained, and I find I am not sure how to explain it all.

So many scenes in this story worked beautifully, with details that conveyed volumes, such as in the above quoted scene where Ray explains movies to Leah, who’s never seen one. But as a story, overall, I was slightly disappointed.

At some points I felt it was about sowing what you reap. Ray tempted his English teacher wife away from her first husband, also a veteran of WWII and of higher rank in fact, and ends up watching her die for many years as she contracts pericarditis. Leah, young and sheltered movie ticket-taker, forbidden to watch or listen to any of the movies, suddenly defies her hyperreligious family and runs off with the minister’s son, only to find herself married to a drug addict, and when she fools around with the minister (which she may or may not actually be doing; it’s the perception of the town) she ends up losing her child. Ray and Leah end up in the same place together many years later. So there’s some hint that this is a happy ending, meaning it’s more about “everything will be all right in the end, so if it isn’t all right, it isn’t the end yet.” But the story itself ends before we find out.

It almost has a fairy-tale prosody to it. Not that there’s anything in any way fantastical or whimsical about any part of the story, but it’s pretty much straight plot point after plot point, with little musing or connecting of the dots. I’m usually a big fan of musing, but it worked for me anyway. I was connected to the story telling, and all the little threads accumulated. How interesting that Ray’s wife contracted a heart ailment. Cloistered Leah and the minister’s son who falls from grace. Many details carry the story along and make it more than just a recitation of events.

This story convinced me to get back on the horse and start writing about what I was reading again, so it touched something in me. I don’t really seek out Alice Munro stories, so I’m glad The New Yorker includes one from time to time. And I’m always glad to see actual short stories, a whole string of short stories lately, instead of novel excerpts.

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