Callan Wink: “Breatharians”
11/10/2012 § 4 Comments
Originally published in The New Yorker, October 22, 2012.
Some authors are vague, because they lack experience. Some are cryptic, because they believe that to be a literary device. And then some just dig their hands down into the trenches, do the work, and let the cards — like August’s mother in this story — fall where they may. Wink is one of those earthier writers: his metaphors are all tacked to physically relevant things (like levels or animal intestines), his prose is straightforward (while still reserving the right for elegance), and the story itself is specific about its details while at the same time avoiding the trap of lecturing or telling the reader anything obvious. Straight off, we get to the harsh and the true:
“Get rid of the damn things,” August’s father said. “The haymow smells like piss. Take a tire iron or a shovel or whatever tool suits you. You’ve been after me for school money? I’ll give you a dollar a tail.”
Mind you, August is twelve. His birth dog, Skyler, has only just died — having chewed through a gallon jug of anti-freeze — and his mother, a depressed and/or dissatisfied woman who has decided to embrace the minimalist spirituality and sustenance of inedia, i.e., Breatharianism/fasting. He doesn’t have the words to express the feelings racing through his body (“‘Motherfucker,’ he said. ‘Motherfucking, cocksucking, shitfaced, goddam, fucking cats.’ It was the most curse words he’d ever strung together….”), but he has this grounding task to distract him. There are no tools for heartache, for loss, but there are definite means of exterminating cats. (Mind you, they’re described as being “horrendous death-dealing swing techniques”; this isn’t a story about the brutality of a cat-murderer, it’s a story about the brutality of life. Best to accept that and move on.) Because he knows in his bones that his mother is never going to move back into the “new house” that his father has built and that the new farmhand Lisa’s rosacea “spread like a hot infection down her neck and shoulders and back and arms” because he’s seen her father thrusting into her from behind, he needs to work through it. And so he does, inefficiently at first, with a torque wrench. Eventually, he’ll finish the job with anti-freeze — the steamy temperature of which, make no mistake, indicates his own icing disposition — and though he’s curt with Lisa (insouciant might be the better word), has grown to accept that his life has changed, “split into two distinct pieces…. All of his life up to this very point existed only in the past, which meant that it didn’t exist at all, not really.”
For a cruel, tight, physical story, that’s some rather existential stuff that Wink’s getting at. Which is sort of the point, and if there’s any weakness here, it’s that Wink leans on the mother too much as a plot device, someone who can blurt out the sort of thoughts that might otherwise just subtly scrape across our skin. To his credit, Wink acknowledges the oddness of this character — “He wondered if there was a word for that in another langue. A word to classify the feeling you get sitting across from your mother, eating a pork chop, with your mother naked under a quilt” — and does a fine job of echoing traces of their conversations and her attitude (especially in regard to odors!) into the rest of the proper story. (I particularly like the way his board of cat tails is presented as “totem and trophy, altogether alien against a backdrop of lilac-patterned wallpaper.” None of this is normal, exactly, and yet . . . it’s happened, which normalizes it to some extent.) Most importantly, Wink is an impartial writer: though the final paragraph hints at the mother’s mental instability, it’s presented in the same fashion as the father’s extramarital choices, the son’s . These things don’t make them bad people,