BASS 2017: Noy Holland, “Tally” from Epoch 65:3


 
I knew a sober man whose brother had died driving drunk on the high windy pains. The living brother, the sober brother, took to drink straightaway. He was belligerent and incompetent, drunk, and a gentle, almost girlish man, sober. He drank schnapps of every flavor and hue.
It was my job to pour and to tally, to feed a coin now and then into the jukebox when the quiet was too much to bear.
 

The power of this very short piece – less than 500 words – is in the poetic use of language. Look at all the contrasts between drunk and sober in those first sentences. The third sentence seems oddly worded and punctuated, not easy to understand, and again I think of that Joyce Cary quote: “Every professional artist has met the questioner who asks of some detail: ‘Why did you do it so clumsily like that, when you could have done it so neatly like this?’” Having just read “The Chicane”, I think of it as a chicane, a little bend in the road that says, slow down, pay attention. Or maybe just borrow from “Close Encounters…”: “This is important. This means something.”

What does it mean? I haven’t got a clue, other than the aforementioned contrasting between drunk and sober. Then I read Holland’s Contributor Note (“…we are sometimes driven into the mouth of what we most fear”) and wonder if it’s not so much a contrast as a conflation, a bringing together.

But there is a story here, with a plot and everything:

One night after several months of this I let myself accompany him home. I drove us out to the turn his brother had missed and we lay in the grass for the stars. I felt pity, yes, and alluring. Enchanted by a grief that wasn’t mine. We heard a bird in the dark we couldn’t see. Meteor, meteoroid, meteorite, we remembered. Sedimentary, igneous, metamorphic..

I can’t help but compare this scene with the final stargazing scene from Hempel’s “Chicane”, a rendering far more sophisticated yet nowhere near as intimate. Of course, in that story, the motivations were completely different, a double-trap scenario rather than two people trying to find comfort in spite of everything.

Again, I’m drawn to the language. That sentence about pity, the clauses don’t parse the way the parallel structure makes you expect them to parse. “For the stars” – that, too, isn’t worded in a typical way. It makes sense, but only if you think about it. It sounds beautiful when read out loud. There’s something at work here, and I don’t know what.

In my travels, I found an interview with Hilary Plum at The American Reader – an interview thanking editor Gordon Lish for his “obsession with language” – that might help:

Character is a function of language—a collection of errors and deviations that resonate with certain behaviors. As with every other element in fiction, it is a record of a writer’s decisions…. Character is a construct which issues from the human animal, from blended and conflicting impulses, not simply the mouth and ear.

Noy Holland

No, that doesn’t really help, though it’s intriguing that errors, deviations, decisions, and conflicting impulses might find their way into the text of a story about grief and self-destruction. I never seem to understand what writers mean when they talk like this; it seems so mystical, something you need to be on a higher plane of consciousness to understand, and I’m left with the words of the story, phrases that fit into spaces in my brain that may have been made for them, like neurotransmitter receptors waiting for serotonin and creating a feeling of satisfaction when it wanders in.

So what happens to these people, the grieving brother (or is he angry? Can’t you be both?) and the bartender who decided to accompany him on this night? They have sex, of course, and there’s something about a big clawfooted bathtub, but mostly it’s the earthquake.

The window glass shook. Water sloshed in the tub. We thought we’d caused it. We had lain in his drunk brother’s ashes, in grass where he had gone ahead. It had not been my grief but I had claimed it. The mountains shuddered. The horizon bucked, it buckled – the boulders strewn and the grasses, erratic, the path of the glacier plain. This isn’t metaphor. This was an earthquake, a moving ripple – ground I had thought of as solid warped, and returning to liquid again.

This confluence of guilt, of the insecurity of the very ground on which we step, of stolen grief, doesn’t do as much for me as the scene in the grass. I almost wish the story had stopped there. But of course that would’ve been a different story. What does it mean for these two, having shared all kinds of intimacies while not appearing to be people given to intimacies, that their first night ends with an earthquake? Is it a warning? Punishment? A sign to mark a new beginning? A cosmic tallying of sins and blessings? A story to tell their grandkids? Or is it just a shift in the earth’s crust caused by forces going back aeons, and has nothing to do with them? As with the Hempel story, I don’t understand, but I want to, and that gives it a certain beauty.

This story is included in Holland’s collection I Was Trying to Describe What it Feels Like, released this past January. It’s the perfect title for a collection of this kind of story.

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