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]

Callan Wink: “Dog Run Moon” from The New Yorker, 9/26/11

New Yorker illustration by Zohan Lazar

Sid was a nude sleeper. He had been ever since he was a little kid. To him, wearing clothes to bed seemed strangely redundant, like wearing underwear inside your underwear or something. And that was why he was now running barefoot and bare-assed across the sharp sandstone rimrock far above the lights of town. It was after two in the morning, a clear, cool early-June night, with the wobbly gibbous moon up high and bright, so that he could see the train yard below – the crisscrossing rails, a huge haphazard pile of old ties, the incinerator stack. He was sweating, but he knew that once he could run no more the cold would start to find its way in. After that, he didn’t know what would happen.

The story starts out with a bit of a non-sequitur: Sid sleeps naked, that is why he is running naked. This serves as our introduction to a slightly off-kilter narration – not really unreliable, but just a little off. And we’re introduced to two physical elements that continue throughout: the moon above, and the moon-like terrain he’s crossing barefoot. It’s a very physical story. I can remember many times being told of the need for more intense sensory description in my stories, and I’ve always been puzzled by that because I don’t really see it done that often. Here, it’s done, and quite well.

The images used to track Sid’s night run are striking; I felt a bit bruised and sore myself after reading this. The moon becomes “a lopsided and misshapen orb that at any moment could lose its tenuous position and break upon the rocks. That might be a good thing.” He’s running on “a shattered Martian nightscape of jumbled rock.”

In his Book Bench interview, the author talks about overcoming his initial hesitation to fragment the “now” story narration with flashbacks: “Introducing large portions of backstory after we see Sid running seemed natural to me in this case, just because the act of running seems to lend itself to reflection on past events.” We learn about his job at the lumber mill, an accident he witnessed, his decision to “liberate” a dog from Montana Bob who, with his accountant Charlie Chaplin, has come for his Brittany spaniel.

And Sid’s ex: “She was a small woman, so pale that the desert hurt her in ways Sid would never fully understand. Like Sid, she was a nude sleeper. When he found this out it became one of those happy little intersections of shared personality, the slow accumulation of which is love. With her, it was years of nights spent back to bare chest.” He tells of a door that would burst open unpredictably from a faulty latch, startling the woman: “Who was the man with his hand on the doorknob, ready to push his way into their lives?” And eventually: “…then one night he woke to the sound of her crying in the bathroom. The next night she came to bed in one of his T-shirts and a pair of boxer shorts. And the next night Sid slept alone.”

Given the less-than-reliable narration in the opening paragraph, I think we’re given to wonder: did the dog need liberating? Was the marriage really happy until that moment? Is Charlie Chaplain really the accountant’s name?

He keeps running; body and mind deteriorate.

He found himself moving his cracked lips, making strange utterances with each painful footfall, the desert a silent observer, an expressionless juror to whom he tried to make his plea: I ran afoul of some bad people in a matter concerning a dog. Irana foul. Iranafoul. I ran, a foul?
It sounded melodramatic and desperate, a wild call for attention. Better to leave the dog out of it. Get right to the point.
Since we dissolved I’ve been a spectre running blind and naked in the desert…

He finds himself, painfully thirsty, standing in a river. “But when he scooped a great double handful of water to his cracked lips it turned back to sand and fell through his fingers.” He comes across a windmill and a stock tank. “He didn’t believe in the stock tank.” But he does, at least enough to notice: “…a single orange carp hovered, blimp-like. Sid wanted to get in, to live with this carp alone in this desert within a desert. But the water was cold, and he knew that the carp did not want him.”

Eventually, the night ends: “It was a loud dawn. Sid had never seen or heard anything like it, the sun breaking the horizon line with a sound like a dull knife ripping a sheet.” So does the chase. Given there are plenty of stories in which the night, the chase, doesn’t end, I was almost surprised when it did. What happens then, well, you need to read for yourself. The last paragraphs are beautiful, inevitable, surprising, exactly what they’re supposed to be. And I’m left wondering: why do we do these things to ourselves?

The author’s own experience with cross-country running in Montana and Utah inform the story. “I always come back to this idea that the act of moving forward physically somehow tricks your mind into a feeling that you are moving forward on greater problems or concerns in your life. In other words, my personal relationships are in shambles, I’m perpetually broke, my job is soul sucking, but, if I can go out and move bodily from point A to point B, and exhaust myself doing it, I have somehow taken steps to remedy my situation. This, of course, is a completely false illusion, but the effects last for a while and when they wear off you go for another run.”

And it’s terrific to note that an MFA student from the University of Wyoming, one with no forthcoming novel to promote, without even a draft (he’s working on short stories) now has a story published in The New Yorker. Congratulations, Callan Wink, and I hope we see more from you soon.