PEN/O.Henry 2012: Kevin Wilson, “A Birth in the Woods” from Ecotone 11, Spring 2011

Ecotone photo: Emery Way

Ecotone photo: Emery Way

His father whittled a block of wood into a duck for the unborn baby before he took his penknife and dug it into the tip of his thumb. When the blood rose to the surface of the skin and trickled down his father’s hand, Caleb looked away, nauseated. His father swung him around, softly, and held up the sliced thumb. “It’s just blood,” he said. “It gets out sometimes and that’s not the worst thing in the world.” Caleb held out his hand, and his father made a quick slice into the boy’s own thumb. When the blood bubbled up, Caleb and his father laughed. “Blood’s nothing to worry about,” his father said, and Caleb felt safe, another lesson learned. His father regarded the half-whittled duck, now streaked with brown-red blood, and threw it into the woods surrounding their cabin, the expanse of trees so dense for miles in every direction that it seemed to Caleb that no one else in the world existed. “Don’t show your mother what we’ve done,” his father said, and Caleb nodded. He wondered how long he would have to wait until he could retrieve the duck for himself.

Something interesting happened while I was reading this story. The father, Felix, who started out, in my mind, as a wise old geezer, got more and more foolish and younger and younger, until by the end he was, again in my mind, barely a teenager. Let me emphasize his actual age did not change, was never specified to begin with. He just seemed a lot more mature in the first half than in the last.

There’s more than enough nuance and structural intricacy to earn a “Literary/” label, but it is a Horror story. A couple lives in the woods with what Linda Furman in her introduction calls “the joyful, arrogant belief that they can make a new Eden and raise their child in a utopia.” And we all know how Utopian stories end.

Charles May notes that the story begins and ends with blood (he often sees a lot more in these PEN/O.Henry stories than I do). I found the opening quoted above to be quite gripping, and was relieved to find Caleb “felt safe.” I became more dubious when Mom had the idea to show Caleb how babies were made by, well, showing him how babies are made. Fortunately, Dad balked, in what turns out to be his final show of common sense.

Mom insists on giving birth at home, when the increasingly foolish Dad not only agrees to that but doesn’t even have another adult hanging around to help out if needed. They use it as an educational experience for six-year-old Caleb. It’s educational, all right, when Mom bleeds out after giving birth to a bear-child and Dad, finally realizing help is needed, skids on ice right off a cliff on his way to obtain it. That leaves Caleb with the baby and the wooden duck that opened the story. I liked the continuity the duck provides.

More than the story itself, I’m interested in what Wilson says about its origins. He gives two somewhat different versions, though they’re probably the same but from two different points of view. In his Contributor Notes, he says before he and his wife decided to become parents themselves, he wrote “story after story about monstrous babies that ruined the lives of their parents.” That’s pretty interesting right there, imagining the inception of that creative urge – seeing himself as the monstrous baby? Or fearing what a someday-baby will do to him?

But when I’d finished the story, I had the impression the “real” story, the part I was most interested in, was yet to come: how did this day affect Caleb’s life, and what was his relationship with his bear-child brother – who took his parents from him, but towards whom he clearly feels responsible and protective – like as they grew up? So I was interested to read Wilson’s other explanation, in an interview with Ecotone, that this story was the aftermath of a failed and abandoned draft of a novel, “a Cormac McCarthy fairy tale” about a boy and his bear-child brother, an attempt to do justice for the characters he’d already created. Maybe the novel was itself part of the monstrous-baby-story binge.

But the story itself? I’m growing more and more discouraged with this volume. The next story, “Naima,” is one I already read when it appeared in The New Yorker, and I take some hope that things will be looking up from here.

6 responses to “PEN/O.Henry 2012: Kevin Wilson, “A Birth in the Woods” from Ecotone 11, Spring 2011

  1. Pingback: Kevin Wilson: “A Birth in the Woods” (PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2012) « Fail Better

  2. I caught up for THAT? I think I liked the first two-thirds of the story (everything up to the birth) far more than you, and I’m off to read May’s response to it right now, but I have to wonder if the people who judged this story made it all the way through — that’s how utterly different the beginning is from the end. As I mention on my blog, too, I don’t totally buy this as “horror” — in fact, if you removed the bear-child references and just made it an ordinary baby, the story would operate perfectly (well, better) as a short story that I wouldn’t have minded reading — mainly for the close third-person narrative. I think it says a lot that changing the baby INTO a bear-child (and leaving all these hints of an unreliable perspective) doesn’t add anything to the story, and as both interviews with Wilson point out, the thing he was actually interested in channeling is everything that would FOLLOW from the ending.

  3. Turning the baby into a bear-child turns the story into horror, because that’s what anyone would remember – “hey, that story with the bear baby.” Everything else gets lost. It feels like a cheap trick.

    At first I too thought it was Caleb’s perception – I’ve read enough about child birth to know newborns do not pop out looking like they do on TV, so I figured, maybe the kid saw a skull misshapen by contractions and thought it was a snout, that sort of thing. I wanted it to be that. Badly.

    I think I liked the first paragraph quite a bit, actually – the blood lesson. It seemed strange, but Caleb was ok with it so I went with it. I’ll pretty much go where an author wants to take me. Except for bear babies. You throw in a bear baby at the last minute, you better have something in the prior text that presages it, and you better have something in the ending that earns it, and he didn’t. Without the bear baby? I’m not sure, it’s impossible to ignore. It’s like The Exorcist – there were really some interesting elements in that novel, but all anyone remembers is the head spinning around and pea soup.

    I’m feeling bad that you decided to tackle this anthology (I know I had nothing to do with it, but still…) – wish you’d been along on pushcart 2011 XXXV, instead, that was an amazing ride. I’m still hoping things will pick up from here.

    • I mean, the whole point of my site’s to find what both what I like and to find a way to better articulate what I dislike, so there’s nothing lost in reading bad fiction. Just disappointment that (a) judges have lost their critical perception, (b) the state of short fiction has declined so far that these *are* the best of the year, or (c) that my own tastes are so bizarre that I’ll never be happy with perfectly good work.

  4. I usually find proportionately very few stories that truly excite me – that have me telling others to read them. I’ve always assumed that’s because of my underdeveloped aesthetic. My original purpose of blogging was to “elevate my aesthetic” so I could write better. I’ve pretty much given up on writing (I’m having way too much fun writing posts – Do you think high school kids would enjoy literature more if they had to blog about it? 😉 ), but I’m still trying to figure out what makes a “good” story. The best I can do right now is figure out exactly why something does or does not appeal to me. And, as you say, articulate it – blogging is really helpful with that, especially when I know others will be reading the same stories, since I know I may have to back up my opinion at any time, and yet be willing to change my mind if a better argument is made or I’m shown something I overlooked. So I’m really grateful for you and Paul and Charles May and all the other people out there I can compare notes with.

  5. Pingback: PEN/O.Henry 2102: Wrap-up « A Just Recompense

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