BASS 2017: Kevin Canty, “God’s Work” from The New Yorker, 4/4/16

Sander loves his mother. He walks a few steps after her, wearing a new black suit that has room for him to grow into, carrying a big black valise of pamphlets. When his mother goes to the front door, rings the bell, waits for an answer, Sander stands behind her, looking over her shoulder, with an expression on his face that he means to be pleasant.
It’s the second day of his summer vacation, but it still feels like spring. Lilacs bloom in every yard; irises wag their pink and purple tongues at him.
His mother is plain. She wears a gray sweater, despite the sun, and a black skirt that reaches nearly to her ankles. No lipstick, short, practical hair. Her name is Anna. She makes up for her plainness with a big galvanic smile. People are on her side right away, though they rarely open the screen door and almost never take a pamphlet. Nobody new ever comes to Fellowship. Anna doesn’t take this as permission to stop trying. She thinks the men and women and children in these sleeping houses will lose the chance to live life as God intended unless they take the message she brings them in the pamphlet. Sander thinks she is lovely and brave and admirable. Every day, she tries to save strangers. Selfless. Sander loves his mother.
Today! is the name of the pamphlet.

Complete story available online at The New Yorker

Those first paragraphs do a fair amount of work. We see the two major characters clearly in terms of their physicality, their relationship to each other, and their relationship to the scene. We may even suppress a little groan, depending on our backgrounds. But this woman is not the crazy mother from Carrie; she’s merely got a mission not many of us understand. And her son seems to believe fully in the purpose of his role.

But there’s more going on as well in the short paragraphs (maybe it’s in the short paragraphs that everything is always hidden). Sander notices it’s Spring, all abloom with pink tongues. And then there’s that line in the fourth paragraph: “Today! is the name of the pamphlet.” It’s amost poetic how those two short paragraphs are placed, spring coming between mother and son, followed by a dramatic, capitalized, italicized, and exclamation-pointed notice of “Today! at the end, a notification that this will not be just another day. As an aside, I remember another story (“Happy Endings”) where Canty did something very much like this, a character’s noticing the blooming spring paralleling his own sexual blooming.

The story follows an almost, but not quite, predictable path. Yes, there’s a girl. And yes, she’s from Sanders’ school, and he’s caught between God and Mammon just like most of us are, but to him it’s a much bigger deal. Because he’s really, truly serious about God; and he’s acutely aware that he looks dorky, especially with the bad haircut he just got. There’s also the girl’s dad, who seems to enjoy making a bit of sport out of baiting proselytizers, much to the girl’s dismay.

It is exactly the person he was afraid it was, Clara Martinson, she of the ripped T-shirt, raccoon eyes, pierced anything, the next grade up from his, this girl who looks and dresses the way every teen girl would if there was nobody to tell her she couldn’t. Which there isn’t. Please, dear God, make me disappear, Sander thinks. Send me to the solar surface and vaporize me.
“What do you want?” she says. Then she notices Sander in his black suit and haircut. O.K.: there is something in each of us, in every sinner (and Sander knows that we are all sinners), that wants to climb toward the light, and for a moment, in Clara’s eyes, Sander sees the longing for grace.
Then, just as quickly, the window shuts. She says, “Oh, for fuck’s sake, Dad.”

Here’s where we expect she’s going to play Eve and tempt Sander right out of the Garden. But that isn’t exactly what happens. She seems sincere, if dubious, about the longing for grace, showing up for Fellowship several times, dressing more respectfully for walks with Sander, even rejecting his timid advance. And then her father whisks her away to parts unknown, possibly to keep her from getting involved with what he considers charlatans. Or maybe he whisks her away for another reason. In any case, she’s gone, and Sander is left with his longings.

I see pretty clearly now, after three stories, what Heidi Pitlor meant in her Foreword when she said these stories “reflect a country profoundly divided.” In the first story, we had two realities based on memory, as well as two brothers separated; in the second, we had Old and New battling it out. Here, we have Believers and Heathens. But it’s not the medium, it’s the centrality that medium plays in their lives, and the calcification of a position that excludes all others from validity. Here, it’s religion, but we can become rigidly embedded in all sorts of single issues that overshadow everything else life has to offer and become pigeonholes for judging people: political beliefs, social or class customs, even artistic tastes.

Canty reveals in his TNY interview that he based the story on a real life situation, a kid tagging along with his mother passing out religious literature. He wanted to explore the conflicts the kid might feel between sin and salvation.I didn’t find Sander’s struggle with overcoming temptation as interesting as I found the overall oppositional structure of the two families. Clara’s dad seems to delight in being anti-religious as much as Anna delights in the Lord. And in between are the two teenagers, each used to their worlds, and curious about the other side. What might’ve happened if dad hadn’t intervened? Would the two have found a middle ground in spite of their parents, each of them understanding the world beyond their own boundaries a little better? Or would it have gone all Romeo and Juliet?

But the story before us is the story we have. It’s interesting, considering that Canty had no clear path in mind when he set the characters in motion, that he chose one that seemed, to me, the least interesting possibility, a sudden and completely unexplained departure, taking the decision out of Sander’s hands entirely and leaving him with only memory. Will it fester, destroy his faith from within? Or will it heal in time? And by the way, how does someone pull up stakes and move so fast? Maybe that’s a part of the world outside my experience that I need to explore further.

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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.

Kevin Canty: “Mayfly” from TNY, 1/28/13

TNY Art by Victo Ngai

TNY Art by Victo Ngai

Driving across the Utah desert on I-70, James hit a butterfly with his car. Then another. Then a shower of them, tapping the windshield like hail, wings trapped in the wipers, orange and black. The noise of them, muted but steady, woke Molly from her trance, and she looked out the windshield, at broken wings and yellow smears.
“Oh, God,” she said. “We have to stop.”
“We can’t stop.”
“We have to,” Molly said. “Look at them.”

Like a butterfly, this story seemed to change as I read it, and between first and second readings. I suspect it also reads very differently depending on with which character the reader identifies.

James and Molly are driving across Utah to visit friends in Colorado. Initially, there’s a lot of Beckett-esque what can, can’t, and must be done, particularly around the butterflies. I found the opening sentence, with its notion of James hitting a butterfly with his car, arresting. I’d never thought of it that way, of hitting an insect with a car, as I would, say, a deer or a squirrel. It seemed odd to me, and thus important: insect fly into cars all the time; in Florida, love bugs are a driver’s nightmare. But to think of the driver as having the action – hitting a butterfly – somehow seems very strange to me. And what’s strange, in stories, usually significant. I had to read the first few paragraphs several times to realize that Molly was upset because the butterflies were being harmed; I’d thought at first she was afraid of them.

The heart of the story, to me, seems to be the relationship between James and Molly, whose wedding will take place in October. James doesn’t seem to like Molly very much.

Molly bundled into herself, knees up, arms wrapped around them, forming an obstinate lump of Molly. She wasn’t being dramatic, or faking anything. She hated this. To be honest, it was part of what he loved about her, just not now. They had got into this and now they had to get out. And he was the one driving, the one to blame.

They had planned this trip in better times. Then Molly had lost her job. It wasn’t all that much of the job, but it was hard for James to imagine her getting another.… James didn’t see how someone would hire her, with her smudgy eyes, her so-so record.

At first, I thought Molly had some kind of, well, problem. Mental illness, mild retardation, Asperger’s, something along those lines. But as I kept reading, I decided it was James who had the problem. Maybe both, or neither, has a problem. Maybe he’s just reacting to their impending marriage. And maybe he just resents that Molly won’t be bankrolling his own dreams:

He wanted nothing more than an escape to graduate school, a few years on the PhD gravy train. He had been assured by his former teachers that he would have no problem getting in, getting funding. But someone had to pay the bills. It wasn’t going to be Molly.

They reach Sam and Jenny’s house for their visit, but Sam has an unavoidable appointment the next day in Denver. For whatever reason, Molly goes with him, and James, though agreeable with the plan, has suspicions once they’ve left. When they don’t return that evening – a possibility they acknowledged when they left – his paranoia grows. But then he thinks that might not be such a bad thing:

A small pleasant thought begin to take shape inside him. Molly and Sam would not come back. They would run off together, into whatever hazy future they imagined. They were meant for each other, runaway souls.
James left himself rest in the thought for a few minutes. When had Molly become a problem?… James tried to find the place where he loved her, too, but all he could come up with this jealousy, and a feeling of ownership.

James and Jenny, mother of four, manage to have a pretty good time for themselves in the meantime. He steals her panties as a souvenir, tucking them into his overnight bag. When Sam and Molly return the next day, James is let down, as one more escape hatch closes.

There’s a lot of detailed nuance in the story that doesn’t quite scan for me, including a fly-fishing scene. I’m a bit tired of stories including fly-fishing scenes. It seems they’ve become almost obligatory, like the musical montages in romantic movies: guy in the river, solitude, clarity. I’m sure there’s a reason this is included in the story, but I don’t know what it is. As Jenny is telling James about a car accident Sam had – “he killed somebody” – he comes to the conclusion that Sam and Jenny won’t be staying married. This seems terribly important to him, possibly due to his own impending marriage. If Sam and Jenny aren’t going to make it, what chance does he have? I’m more interested, however, in the narcissism; he just found out his best friend from college accidentally killed someone, and he’s thinking of it in terms of himself. Another note I can’t quite place: He’s also thinking about the recent death of his parents, which may be feeding into his frustrated desire to have Molly put him through grad school.

The story closes with an abrupt flash-forward to October. We don’t know if James and Molly have married or not; it’s another odd writer’s choice. Whether immediately pre- or post-nuptials, I’d think it would be mentioned. Or, for that matter, if the wedding had been postponed. But it’s the most interesting moment in the story:

And afterward, only once in a while did he remember, as on the October morning, months later, and he was grading papers at his desk in the bedroom and Molly came to kiss him, fresh out of the shower, wearing nothing but a white cotton tank top and a pair of purple-and-white striped panties.
“The weird thing,” she said, “I don’t even remember when I bought these. Do you?”
“No idea,” James said
“Oh, well,” she said, and kissed him again, and dressed and got her satchel and went off to the coffee shop to work on her play.

Paul Debrasky of I Just Read About That points out how implausible this is: “Nobody suddenly starts wearing new underpants that they find in their drawer.” I have to agree. I once found a strange pair of socks in my drawer – most likely they were left in the dryer by the previous user – and not only threw them out but re-laundered all my socks. For underwear, I might throw out everything in the drawer. But what’s fascinating about this scene is the disrespect, the passive-aggressive hostility, James shows for Molly.

I was surprised to find Molly working on a play; this was the first mention of anything creative on her part, and it made me wonder: is this part of James’ hostility towards her? She’s writing, and he isn’t? Is he just another blocked writer, blaming whatever is handy? It seems an odd detail to leave out accidentally, so I think it must have significance, emphasized by placing it at the very end.

So what about the butterflies? Is James a butterfly, mowed down by Molly? I don’t see it that way – there’s no reason he has to stay with her – but he might. Which raises his creep quotient even higher. Or is it more general – butterflies are the dreams that get mowed down by life, as we’re trying to get from point A to point B?

In the end, I have no idea what to make of this story, and I suspect others might read it completely differently and feel far more sympathetic to James. For that matter, I might read it completely differently a year from now.