BASS 2015: Kevin Canty, “Happy Endings” from New Ohio Review, #15

All his life McHenry had lived with someone watching him: a mother, a father, a wife, a daughter, his customers. He dug wells for a living and his customers were cattle ranchers and wheat farmers, which meant they were always about to go broke, except when they were rich. They didn’t make a show of watching him but they did….
So he learned to look like he was working when he worked. He learned to act like a father with his daughter was around, to look like a husband when Marnie needed a husband. He did what people expected him to or maybe a little more. He always tried for more. McHenry had a brisk practical manner, plastic glasses, and a crew cut that turned gray early, and all-purpose character that didn’t change. He got along with people. It was way through.

Every once in a while, I come to a story in one of these prize collections that has me scratching my head, trying to figure out why it’s so prizewinning. Like here. It’s a perfectly nice story, with a character who changes and some nice markers by which we gauge his progress, but… is it really a “best” story? Did I miss something along the way? I don’t know (obviously; if I knew, I wouldn’t have missed it); if anyone out there does, please tell me.

McHenry is a regular guy who finds himself alone after his wife dies and his daughter goes off to make her own life. He’s ready for a change. He’s been a hardworking guy all his life, so he shuts down his business and discovers… nothing. He’s still alone. Aloner, in fact. And, by the way, he’s really horny. A casual conversation bring the massage parlor in Billings into his range of vision;he gives it a try, and it turns out to be the catalyst for the usual turning-the-world-upside-down, freeing of the soul type thing that forbidden sex is often credited with.

She was clothed and he was naked. She was at work, in charge, she knew where she was and what she was doing. While McHenry was way out past the safe shallows. This made no sense to him, the fact that he was here.

There’s a nice bit about Spring: initially, he observes it’s a “hard season” recalled in the context of his departed wife and a freezing rain; after his awakening – literally, after he steps out of the massage parlor – he sees spring as warm and inviting. And there are some great lines: his observation that the room in the massage parlor is ” easy to clean, like a veterinarian’s exam room” bringing in the conflation of clean and dirty, how the dirty part allows life to spring from a formerly sterile spot; and the question he poses to himself, ” What if this was not wrong?”

I’ve encountered Canty before, in a New Yorker story. It left me confused, but there was a lot to it. Here, I’m not confused at all, but I miss the conglomeration of elements. I find it ironic that two reviews of Canty’s work (one, two; he’s published three story collections and five novels, so he obviously knows what he’s doing) warn readers that his stories do not have happy endings. It seems fitting somehow that he’d write a story about happy endings with a happy ending.

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2 responses to “BASS 2015: Kevin Canty, “Happy Endings” from New Ohio Review, #15

  1. I’m so glad you wrote this. I had a similar initial reaction to it; I was even angry for a moment that this story got so much love. Happy Ending? Hasn’t every writer heard that euphemism and thought of the ironic narrative possibilities? Isn’t that like Colonel Potter’s portrait of his thumb, the thing every artist has thought of doing but rejected because it was obviously too cheesy?

    I took the story the same way you did for about 24 hours. It was an all-too-straightforward late-in-life awakening ending with the all-too-easy “His life was about to change.” But, on further reflection, I see this story now as the opposite. McHenry thinks he’s had an awakening. But his awakening has now made him the sort of person who isn’t ashamed to frequent a Thai massage parlor where they give out hand jobs. What kind of awakening is that?

    I think it’s all linked to his inability to look at others. You cited the opening, where McHenry is used to being watched. There’s also his complete lack of interest in bird watching, coupled with his obtuseness in picking up hints from Adele: “It wasn’t a hint. Nothing was going to happen between the two of them. The deep elemental strangeness of another life, even one as familiar as Adele’s, and McHenry naked and alive inside. It was just such a strange world.”

    Many (most?) narratives where the main character fails to change for the better come from a lack of introspection. McHenry’s comes from his inability to see others. The last time we see him visit the parlor, it’s not his usual girl. “…this one had an unhappy look to her, even an angry look, as if she had just been woken up, which maybe she had.” That’s because, maybe, the girl has been the victim of sex trafficking. But McHenry isn’t about to see that. To him, this last trip where he realizes that “nobody was watching” is all a prelude to his morning-has-broken transcendental moment on the hood of his truck. He thinks he’s now smarter than everyone in the world, because to hell with the rules and why shouldn’t he enjoy all the good things in the world? It’s entirely ironic.

    At least, that’s how I took it. In this reading of things, Canty took a huge risk of being misunderstood. Because it was easy to read it as a real awakening.

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