BASS 2014: Peter Cameron, “After the Flood” from Subtropics #15

The Djuvanovics came to live with us after the flood because they had nowhere else to go. Well, that’s not really true. They had plenty of places to go, they had the whole world to go to, but they came to us, and that was because of Reverend Judy. It was her idea, and Reverend Judy’s a very persuasive person. I suppose that’s a good quality in a minister, but I have to say I find it somewhat grating. The Djuvanovics had to go somewhere because the house was condemned. One wall had buckled and the roof had caved in. Everyone said how lucky it was that they weren’t all killed when the house collapsed, but they were not killed. Although they did lose pretty much everything they owned.

This story grabbed me right away, for reasons I don’t entirely understand. It’s not really my kind of story. But it’s exactly my kind of story, in that it left me staring at the last paragraph, amazed at what I’d just experienced. Then I read it again, and found even more.

The narrator’s voice is perfectly captured – a no-nonsense, knows-her-own-mind kind of voice, with no interest in what’s current but willing to live and let live, a digressive style suggestive of speech rather than writing. Something very midwestern or New England about it. It’s not a voice that often grabs me (except for the digressions, which, well, you know). This time it did. I knew something was being held back, something would be revealed. I couldn’t wait to find out what.

I wasn’t disappointed.

However, it’s not easy to write a blog post about a story in which every paragraph contains another level: another significant insight into who these people are, another astute observation about who we all are and how we make certain choices, another “aha” moment. At some point, I have to narrow it down or I’ll be quoting the entire story (which is not available online that I can find, but is well worth the effort to obtain through Subtropics or your public library).

So what did I like so much? Voice, I’ve already mentioned. Then there’s character. Character in fiction is more than quirks and qualities; it has to inform what people do. And we need to know the characters pretty quickly in a short story so we can recognize significance and understand why they do what they do. We learn a lot about the narrator from this casual thought:

I was born and raised in this town. I always thought I would move away at some point, there are so many things that can take a person somewhere else, but none of those things ever happened to me, so here I am. It’s not that I want to live somewhere else; this is a very nice town and I can’t imagine a nicer place to live except perhaps someplace where it doesn’t snow so much, but I suppose every place has its good things and bad things.

So we have a woman who doesn’t move unless she’s acted upon by an outside force. Here comes the outside force: the flood. And Reverend Judy.

I’ve heard writers talk about trapping characters together, so they’d be forced to deal with each other. Put Jane Eyre in the same house as Mr. Rochester; turn one family member into a cockroach; even Stephen King put his writer into a house with a psycho in the middle of a snowstorm. That’s part of the role Reverend Judy plays: she forces characters together on many levels.

Although the narrator does take in the Djuvanovics, she isn’t happy about it, for a couple of reasons. One is her history with them; the other is her history with herself. She’d met Mr. Djovanovic at a minor social event, and tried to make small talk; unfortunately, it didn’t go very well:

I said, “What kind of a name is Djuvanovic?” No, I meant this in a very nice way, not at all like it was a suspicious or bad or foreign name, but I know that’s how it sounded because Mr. Djuvanovic looked at me oddly and said, “well, what kind of name is Evarts?” And I said, “I think it’s just a plain old American name, but your name is so interesting and I wonder what it means.” “Means?” Asked Mr. Djuvanovic. “It’s a name, it doesn’t mean anything.” I realized by his hostile tone that my question had offended him, even though I had meant it in the friendliest possible way, so I tried to think of how to restore the balm of fellowship to our conversation. “Is it European?” I asked him, because no one can be insulted for being taken for a European, but this seemed only to annoy Mr. Djuvanovic further, for he said, “No, it’s not European,” and he turned away and walked over to the doughnut table and grabbed a fistful of Pop-ems. And that was the extent of my relationship with any of the Djuvanovics, and now they were coming to live in my house.

What we have here is a privilege gap. It’s the sort of conversation people of good will take for granted; it’s also the sort of conversation people who’ve taken a lot of crap because of their “origins” are not going to appreciate. The narrator would never consider a name to be a problem; Mr. Djuvanovic seems to be lacking that luxury. I doubt the narrator was being cruel, even in a subconscious way, but I can see how it easily might have felt that way to Mr. Djuvanovic. Of course, the narrator’s never been bothered with worrying about fancy notions like “privilege.” Which is, come to think of it, pretty much the most significant marker of privilege.

She’s also remembering back when she was young and foolish and had some rather unkind thoughts about the people who lived down by the river, and she doesn’t like being reminded of those unkind thoughts. She doesn’t like being reminded about a lot of things.

The reveal that explains everything that happens in this story is doled out at a glacial pace, but somehow it has an extraordinary momentum; I think that momentum, in addition to the perfect pitch of the voice, is what so grabbed me. A slow reveal has its drawbacks, and its possibilities, but here, the hints kept building. Even when I thought I knew, I knew I didn’t know. I’m astonished at how well this was done.

As the writer forces characters together, he also has to figure out what happens as a result of that. In spite of the suspense I felt all along, what happens here was inevitable. How does that happen?

A word about the image used above: it’s the image the author chose to symbolize this work when he published it in limited edition through his own Wallflower Press (now Shrinking Violet Press). It isn’t anywhere near the image I would have initially chosen – I found a great drawing from a newspaper article about a 1941 flood in Peru, and a lovely abstract mixed media piece by Kara Barkved titled “Flood Plain”, both of which had the horizontal framing I would’ve preferred to have used. But once I thought about it for a while, I realized: the author’s selection of image, like his selection of language, is exquisite.

So here I am, the fan of unusual narrative style or bizarre situations or linguistic play, giving a standing ovation to quiet domestic realism. Because you gotta go with what works, and this story really works.

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12 responses to “BASS 2014: Peter Cameron, “After the Flood” from Subtropics #15

  1. I didn’t love the voice, but I absolutely loved this story for most of the same reasons. The end somehow felt inevitable, but was in no way predictable. I had chills at the end of the reverend scene with the pound cake. It was brilliant to make the last conversation through the closed door (P.S. I’m working my way through BASS 2014, so you can expect to keep finding my comments pop up).

    • Hi again Hilbert – yes, I’d forgotten about the closed door, makes it so private and secret.

      Glad to have company! And, by the way, I’ll be starting Pushcart XXXIX in January, takes about 6 months, so if you want another project after BASS… 😉

  2. Pingback: Bye-Bye BASS 2014 | A Just Recompense

  3. I’m reading this from “the Best American Short Stories, 2014” and really appreciate your POV and analysis of the story. I’m studying it for “voice,” and how the author handles this aspect. Thanks! (‘will follow too)

    • Hi Kennedy – the voice gave me a very distinctive physical image of the woman, and insight into her character – lots of heavy lifting for that element, but when it pulls it off, it really cooks.

  4. Yes, Peter Cameron painted a vivid personality portrait of Mrs. Evarts through voice. He also nailed the ironic twist by letting revelations about Alice, Laila, and Charlie unfold incrementally. Clever how he used the Reverend Judy character to move the plot–insert conflict (or philosophical question) where the Evarts dared not.

  5. I am just finally getting to BASS 2014. This is the fourth story in the series, and the first one I could say I liked (Sorry, “Night of the Satellite,” which I seem to be the only one who doesn’t like). I know what you mean about “it isn’t my kind of story, except that it is.” I wanted to dislike the voice, because the old biddy at the church and her back-handed way of talking about new-fangledness and the new durn preacher and the new durn songs with the durn gee-tar in them is kind of played out. But it worked somehow.

    I wasn’t quite sure about the main character turn. Alice starts out as the fastidious church fixture who shuts everyone out and hates the new preacher with her new ways. Then, she suddenly hits a turn where “I’ve been trying to be a better Christian.” This kind of crescendoes until she is even talking about giving up the house to the Djovkoshriaonfoidapoihres. But she is somehow unable to transform this into anything, and by the end, she has figuratively shut the door on Reverend Judy and is talking through a literal door to Robert.

    A lot of this can be explained by the passage you cited, the one where she thought something would take her away from her hometown, but nothing did, because she is passive. She’s like one of Robert’s 297 unused belts, just hanging there, waiting for him to do something. But what caused her to nearly transcend this? Was it Robert’s unexpected affection the night they were forced to share a bed together? It’s a little hard for me to locate the tragic flaw, if such is to be had, because I’m a little at a loss to find where her sudden goodness welled up from.

    • Hi Jake – let me ask you this: What sudden goodness? It’s been a while since I read the story, but my recollection is, she was forced into this situation by the Reverend Judy, she had the opportunity to transcend, but was not able to (or chose not to, I’m not sure which, maybe a little of both). As soon as the crisis was over, she withdrew more, deciding not to go to church any more so the source of the “push” would be removed and she’d never be threatened with more than she could handle again, and she closed the door on the room and any chance of moving past the tragedy.
      I’d very much like to know how you saw it.

      • At the beginning of the story, the narrator is a fairly familiar character, who dislikes newness and change and is forced to accept both, for a time. She resists. In retelling how it happened, she spends a lot of time on how much she doesn’t like Rev. Judy. Once Judy drops the idea and leaves, the narrator says that “we honestly both thought about getting in the car and driving away…but that wasn’t a very practical response, and Robert is a practical man…”

        Then she talks about living arrangements, and then her awkward history with Mr. Djuknsoinrasblahblahstan, ending with “and now they were coming to live in my house.”

        Then there is something of an interlude, which was when I really started to enjoy myself. There’s “I thought I’d get away, but it never happened, but I guess that’s okay.” And there’s “my sister got my folks’ house, but she’s not (in that she totally is) related to this.” Then there’s the shameful bit about calling folks “river rats.”

        The family arrives, and she gives them fairly shabby spaghetti and old salad while she and her husband share an uncharacteristically prodigal night out.

        Then, “that night something strange happened,” which is the tenderness between Robert and the narrator. But even before the tenderness (but after the wine), the narrator is starting to soften towards the guests. “It made me feel a bit bad for thinking poorly about (her)…”She had every right to fall asleep like that on the sofa…”…you couldn’t blame her for that…”

        After her tender night with Robert, she sleeps late. There is more awkwardness with the guests making coffee. She finds out the family did not have insurance for their house. She starts to say that “they have a home here” and can stay for as long as they like.

        When she goes down into the basement, she is suddenly talking about giving up their house to this family. Afterwards, she is trying harder to be nicer to them. She gives the daughter her dead daughter’s doll house. The family moves out after eight days (because 40 days and nights would be too hammy). She goes to the extra trouble to say goodbye.

        Then, Rev. Judy shows up, and she’s back to hating newness, and wants nothing to do with anything. I actually think this might not be a “failed development.” She might have realized that bad things happen, and the way to come out of that isn’t to try to rescue the fish out of the flood, but to embrace her own experience. I’m not really sure. I’m partly unsure, because I don’t know from whence came the near turn that she ultimately decided against.

  6. I lost my 26 year old son a year ago in an tragic accident. I was so moved moved by this story. The loneliness of loss was finally captured for me. Thank you, Mr. Cameron. I have an MA in English, but it was the personal that grabbed me this time.

    • Julie – I’m so sorry for your tragic loss. I think that knowing someone else truly understands the pain we feel, makes us a little less alone with it.
      I’m not sure the author will see this comment – you might want to contact him via his website if you want to be sure.
      My best wishes for your continued healing.

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