BASS 2012: Taylor Antrim – “Pilgrim Life” from American Short Fiction

Leland Howard: "Rearview Mirror"

Leland Howard: “Rearview Mirror”

I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I make bad decisions. In a tight spot, I lose perspective. All of the sudden I’m behind the wheel of a rented Mazda, flooring the accelerator, a body in my rearview.

This story reminded me a little of Justin Taylor’s “After Ellen“: young man uses college to put as much distance as possible between him and his family, but continues to display woefully immature behavior, especially running away, well into his 20s. Since I still feel a little regret at how little I liked that earlier story (I cringed when I recognized myself in Paul Debraski‘s comments about my comments), I decided to be extra-careful here.

Maybe I don’t hate the stories as much as the immature 20-something protagonists.

While I did’t love it, I didn’t hate this story at all; there’s a lot of good stuff going on. Unlike with “After Ellen,” I saw movement and character development. Lewis, the protagonist, has a tendency towards avoidance, and that changes a bit by the end: he starts to grow up, in a kind of a delayed bildungsroman. I still find it annoying that the author seems to be asking for sympathy for this character, but that could be my interpretation. Maybe I’m just an old fart who has no patience with youngsters these days. After all, I was such a sterling example of what youth should be. Mmm-hm.

By Thursday I still hadn’t said word one about the accident. My roommate Rand would be the guy, and this would be the moment: and I sitting on our narrow balcony, legs shot through the railings, nighttime, glittery San Francisco laid out below us. September 22, 1999. “Know what Hardar Jumpiche said about giving away good feelings?” He asked.

Took me a second to realize who he meant: the author of Today’s the Day. that and Buddhism For Dummies had appeared on the back of the toilet after Rand sold his startup to WestLab. The incubator’s stock had since been on a tear – up 6% this month – which had left Rand worth, more or less, $12 million.

Based on the time setting, I expected the story to have something to do with the dot-com bubble burst, but that isn’t part of this landscape. If having a millionaire roommate seems a little far-fetched, that part of the story is from Antrim’s life, per the Contributor Notes:

“Pilgrim Life” starts with that calming view, that apartment, my millionaire roommate, my wine magazine job. The rest of it I entirely made up (I swear) over a three-month stretch in the midst of the worst financial crisis I’ve ever lived through. Jobs were not easy to find in 2009, and I had recently lost mine. Going back to a charmed year in San Francisco felt like a tonic.

That’s an interesting approach: collapse a low period onto a good year and see what happens. I also like the connotation of the title. Lewis’s mother has made a point of showing him her claim to Pilgrim heritage, but there’s the overlay of one venturing forth to find something sacred. It’s interesting that could apply to Lewis leaving home, or returning, since it’s hinted that he won’t be staying there long.

I can appreciate that Lewis develops some nascent awareness of his difficulties:

I ask myself why I felt so hard for a girl who didn’t fall for me. Why I proposed to her. Why I left an injured man on the side of the road. Sometimes asking these questions makes me think I’ve changed – grown up a little – and then I’ll see boat masts tipping back and forth in the harbor like metronome needles, and I get this overwhelming urge to try to steal one of them and set sail for, like, Havana.

In fact, that’s quite a paragraph, of that in-between stage where you at least recognize what a jerk you’ve been, even if you still want to be that same jerk all over again. And I got quite a chuckle out of the scene with the check. You’ll have to read the story to see what I mean.

I also very much liked the closing:

The pelicans take these kamikaze plunges into the water. The way they hit, not one should survive – but of course, they all do. They come up with their beaks full of fish.

None of us should survive our youth. The chances we take! When I was 18, I found my roommate on the Esplanade in Boston – or rather, she found me, by asking “Have you ever heard of nam myoho renge kyo?” and enticing me to play the glockenspiel in a Buddhist marching band. I went out with a guy who told me he was with the CIA (turns out he was a Navy sailor, what did I know about government IDs). And yes, I did things that hurt other people, made myself feel better at others’ expense, though I’m not going to ‘fess to any of them here. Most of us have made mistakes, sometimes big ones. And yet we usually survive – as long as we’re white middle class, that is (do you think Lewis would’ve been given community service for his hit-and-run if he’d been a black kid mopping floors at McDonald’s with no millionaire roommate or a lawyer brother?). Which may be another reason I was annoyed by this story. There’s entirely too much entitlement – to sympathy, to leniency, to the assistance and forgiveness of others – on Lewis’s part. Am I supposed to think he suffered? Or am I supposed to be annoyed that he didn’t?

When a story, or a character, annoys me, that doesn’t mean it’s a bad story. Maybe that’s what I’m learning now, as I belatedly grow up as a reader.

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One response to “BASS 2012: Taylor Antrim – “Pilgrim Life” from American Short Fiction

  1. Pingback: What Can We Steal from Taylor Antrim’s “Pilgrim Life”? | Great Writers Steal

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