Callan Wink: “The Breatharians” from The New Yorker, 10/22/12

TNY Illustration by Victo Ngai

TNY Illustration by Victo Ngai

“I don’t think things really exist until we can name them. Without names, the world is just populated by spooks and monsters.”

I’m kind of surprised how laid-back I was about this story. I even dictated some of it aloud, and considering the primary plot device, my cat also took it with remarkable equanimity. I guess she (and I) recognize that farm people, rural people, view cats and dogs differently from us city folk. And that fiction is fiction.

I’m also pretty sure the Dad is psycho.

But if you don’t name something, it doesn’t really exist. Right?

The first thing Adam did after he was plopped into the Garden of Eden was name the animals. It was actually part of “finding an help meet” for him, and when the rhinoceros and peacock and porcupine and the beasts and cattle and fowl all got named but didn’t work out, God made Eve. But that’s beside the point (maybe; at least it’s a point for a different post). The point here is: naming is important. We name our pets, our cars, Marines name their rifles, I’ve heard some men name their privy members (a little too cute for me, but to each his own) – but not our throw rugs or our #2 pencils or our USB cables. We personally name what has emotional meaning to us, but we name in a more general way whatever is important in our lives and our societies: the #2 pencils, USB cables, rugs.

“Did you know that, Augie? That there are all sorts of words for things in other languages that we don’t have in English? It’s like your soul is tongue-tied when that happens, when you have a feeling or experience that you can’t explain, because there isn’t a specific word for it. If you knew all the languages in the world, you could express yourself perfectly, and all experiences would be understandable to you because you would have a word, a perfect word, to attach to any possible occasion. See what I mean?”

August’s mom has attached the word “breatharian” to her state of being able to live on air – not to just refrain from eating, but to be nourished by simply breathing. So what has turned this woman, a fine woman from a fine family in New Orleans, a woman whose father built the “old house” in which she now lives, having moved out of the “new house” her husband built –

“He feels like it’s his own,” August’s mother had said to him once, while smoking at the dining-room table of the new house. “His mother didn’t have much. Everything we got came from my side, you know. He would never admit it in a hundred years, but it bothers him.” She coughed. “It’s too big. That was my complaint from the get-go. It’s hard to heat, too, exposed up on the hill like this, the wind gets in everywhere. My father would never have done it like that. He built the best possible house for himself and my mother. That’s the type of man he was.”

– what has turned her into someone who can live without nourishment? Who wants to live without nourishment? Who finds it important enough to put a name to it, changing her need from a monster into a concrete thing?

Maybe she’s a psycho, too. Because I’m still pretty sure August’s dad is a psycho. It’s not that he sends young August out to kill the hordes of annoying barn cats. It’s how he structures the deal, paying a dollar a tail:

“Get rid of the damn things….You take their tails and pound them to a board, and then after a few days we’ll have the settling up. Small tails worth as much as large tails, it’s all the same.”

Of course, August himself, at about age 13, might well be a psycho, too:

August had never actually killed a cat before, but, like most farm boys, he had engaged in plenty of casual acts of torture.

But as long as no one names these things – as long as no one points out Mom’s a castrating bitch (or a psycho) and Dad’s just mean for moving the teenage farmhand Lisa into the house to make supper after doing her out in the hayloft and has the kid not just kill the cats but mutilate them and present the severed tails as an accounting ledger, and Augie does just that, tacking the tails to a board and leaving it for Dad – as long as all this, and the marital separation, stays an unnamed monster, it’s just a family. Because there’s a nice word for that.

While I enjoyed the story, I was a little disappointed by the Page-Turner interview with Callan Wink when I found out the ever-present voice of Paul Harvey in the story was just a memory of his, without some deep meaning. I agree with him completely when he says “in the end the dead cats aren’t so much the focus as something that exists on the periphery.” And that it’s a story about this family, these people, and what they’re doing to this boy.

When I read Callan Wink’s first TNY story, “Dog Run Moon,” last October, I said I hoped we’d be seeing more from him soon. I’m glad we have.

[addendum: How nice to see this in Best American Short Stories 2013]

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One response to “Callan Wink: “The Breatharians” from The New Yorker, 10/22/12

  1. Pingback: Rebecca Curtis: “The Christmas Miracle” from TNY, 12/23-30/13 | A Just Recompense

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