Paul Theroux: “Our Raccoon Year”

05/11/2012 § Leave a comment

Originally published in Harper’s, May 2012.

Very nice, what Theroux is doing here, in linking a father’s attempts to hold things together after the moody departure of his wife to the arrival/infestation of a horde of raccoons laying waste to these fragile attempts at keeping up appearances. The pacing is terrific, and the story takes on a device well-perfected in The Scarlet Letter — i.e., the sections mirror each other, as do many of the lines spoken by the characters — but without being heavy-handed about it. As Pa goes through some variant on the stages of grief, we see him getting all choked up at the sight of a “plump mother raccoon with a black eye mask, tottering a little and poking her snout along the edge of the brick apron of the pool” and saying, “‘There’s a real mother.'” It’s only a matter of time, however, before he’s calling them “coons,” and while he starts out by merely trapping the vermin and releasing them miles away, he’s soon getting satisfaction out of transferring his rage against his absent wife onto the vile creatures. How extreme does he get? “‘Know what? I’d like to crucify one.'” Ouch. His food goes to waste, too: he begins the story taking on all of Ma’s former tasks and in his determination to one-up and prove how little he needs her, he takes up “fancy cooking, the sort of cooking that makes a person bossy, talking about his sauces and his fresh ingredients.” (The story is narrated in the first-person by the older of his two sons, so “bossy” is terrific word choice.) “‘Anything with a mouth would eat that,'” says Pa, but by the end, when he’s telling his kids to “just fix yourselves something,” he’s gone to the other extreme: “‘I eat anything that fits into my mouth.'”

But while the execution of the structure is subtle and the language manages to be lightly playful and descriptive all at once, the plot itself is rather blunt. We’re told, at least three times, that the father is becoming a bit of a raccoon himself: at first, it’s a quiet parallel between the parting mother’s “bright anxious eyes” and the father’s eyes, described toward the end as “dark in the day and yellowish at night.” Do we then need to be told that “He’d begun keeping raccoon hours”? The fact that the story ends with this line — “When I looked back I saw him staring with yellow eyes at Ma leading us away from him” — makes me recognize how unsubstantial the story is. Is that really it? A man’s year-long reversion to animal habits, consumed by pettiness and anger? And despite writing from the eldest’s perspective, we’re given very little on how this actually impacts the kids, and what little we do get is often played for jokes, or shock. The sons overhear the father yelling at a visitor — when they round the corner, believing it to be their mother, they see instead “the masked face and the snout and the greasy fur.” The story is utterly believable, and far from boring, especially with all those comic twists and reversals, but the conclusion is a bit too mundane: you’re not really going to need or want to revisit this.

Does that make “Our Raccoon Year” a failure? That depends largely on why one writes: is it to entertain, to surprise, to delight? Is it to demonstrate, teach, or terrify? Is it to help bridge a gap between lies we can accept and truths we cannot? I believe that the best fiction is capable of all these things, and more. Theroux’s tale unambitiously aims and succeeds and hitting the low, animal, notes: taken for what it is, then, it’s quite good.

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