Pushcart XLIII: Rick Moody, “A Country Scene” (nonfiction) from Salmagundi #174

The meth heads, if that is the correct designation, had been watching the house for months. Agreed, this presumes the meth heads had their shit together enough to watch anything at all, beyond NASCAR or Alaska State Troopers. Their hard, rural lives mainly involved sleeping in, for days at a time, in the extremity of despond, because that was what it felt like when the pollutants evacuated the relevant neurotransmitters….
Did they start watching the house after they were rebuffed in their attempt to snow-shovel the driveway, for cash, on one occasion? ….We can imagine their contempt for the owner as he lifted each wet, intractable shovelful of precipitation, when more practical methods were, for a paltry sum, being offered to achieve a like result. Maybe they wanted a closer look at the premises, while shoveling, as they waited for a climatically advantageous period, a period in which the owner of the house would no longer be likely to visit so frequently as he did in summer. It was, after all, his second home.
And so: the meth heads decided upon October, right after the birthday of the owner. They did not break in during a birthday celebration, during the eating of gluten-free chocolate-chocolate made from a box. Among the questions pursuant to the crime, including wondering whether the perpetrators were beaten frequently as children, was the question of whether they were observing through the windows during the two-day birthday celebration. Was candle extinguishing observed? Conjugal activity? Excretory episodes? And did they try the patio door with their crowbar before the burglary?….

Nonfiction takes a lot of forms, and most of them show up in each Pushcart volume at least once. There’s straight reportage, which informs the reader of some relatively obscure topic: the story on a community of people living in their cars at an Oregon rest stop was a good example. Persuasive essays present a point of view and support it with some aspect of logical argument. Then there’s memoir, which may capture just a brief moment of the writer’s life to share it, along with some life lesson; “A Fish in a Tree” from this year’s volume, for instance. Very common these days is the “thought piece,” which, though based on personal experience rather than logical argument, may combine different elements, as Pam Houston’s opening essay did this year.

Creative non-fiction might fall into any of those other categories, but usually includes some formal, structural, or narrative element that makes it atypical. Kiese Laymon’s essay collection How to Kill Yourself and Others in America takes the overall form of a music album, and goes through storytelling, letter writing, and rap. Jason Novak’s painful remembrance of a child took the form of a comic. Although formal experimentation is more common as fiction – I’ve seen pieces set as glossaries, indices, lists, recipes – creative nonfiction can take a variety of paths.

Rick Moody chooses to relate an incident in his life by means of what seems to be a story, complete with a Study Guide at the end. The story is from the point of view of a group of rural meth dealers/users who break into a house and spend a couple of raucous days there.

In short order, across the threshold, the meth heads came to feel that all that was in the house belonged to them. The door swung back, and to the meth heads it was like the first time they non-consensually abridged the freedoms of a teenage learning-disabled girl. The prevailing order of things, in which, by and large, you leave to other people their ideas about property and ownership, was overturned, and the appurtenances of that house were theirs.
However, achieving the threshold of the premises also leads us to an important metaphysical question, one that is implicit in breaking and entering in the majority of circumstances, and that metaphysical question is: having had their quiet enjoyment of the premises would they shit on the bed, whichever bed; for many lawless, upcountry sons of liberty, this was a traditional part of the breaking and entering game, it was part of the folk literature of breaking and entering, a culmination even, and though they had performed just the four or five burglaries in the Eastern Dutchess County area, they were well aware that shitting on the bed was practically de rigeur.

The house, of course, turns out to be Moody’s. The shitting-on-the-bed trope runs through it, the ultimate symbol of degradation. It’s easy to be an armchair liberal who sympathizes with the structural inequalities in society, forces that keep some people at socioeconomic bottom and allow others to rise; it’s a lot harder when a bunch of guys break into your country house, your second home – the house where your family held a birthday celebration a few days before – spill the food on the floor, pour out the booze, and shit on the bed.

Having described what happened by imagining the invaders actually performing their acts – a bit of clearly indicated speculation in the service of nonfiction – the Study Guide begins with the kinds of questions you’d normally expect in a study guide, but then moves into a much more personal expression of horror and rage.

Questions for Further Study
1) How is class a particular feature of the burglary at the heart of “A Country Scene”?
2) Is it possible to write a story in which there are no conventionally sympathetic characters? Is the narrator in this story sympathetic?

10) Is it possible for the perpetrators of these burglaries, who took, for example, the ring I proposed to my wife with, to commit these crimes without ever undertaking to feel the loss that the violated party feels (and here I use the word violated, despite its overuse in this context, because I now understand precisely what it means)?
11) How can I go on doing my work, when the place where I did my work was the setting of this “country scene”? That is, a place defiled by these guys, and made more their home than mine?

The break-in becomes theft, not of the contents, but of the house itself, and certainly destruction of a sense of safety and comfort, a full-immersion bath in vulnerability. When we first read the title – The Country Scene – we imagine lots of green and butterflies and singing birds, a relaxing break from the pace of city life, or even suburban life for those with jobs and deadlines and demands. We want to kick back, take our shoes off, and bask in the sun for a moment. Until we read this story, which paints a very different Country Scene, one that could intrude on the more pleasant variety at any time.

The slow pace, the gradual movement from an almost comic scene of ridiculous destruction to the sense of personal violation, makes this approach particularly powerful.

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