T. Coraghessan Boyle: “Birnam Wood”

12/08/2012 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, September 3, 2012.

Oh grow up, you hipster: better learn what you want before it’s too late. The story opens with Keith on his second chance with the girl he loves, Nora (though “love” is debatable; her name and the possession he feels for her brings A Doll’s House to mind), struggling to hang on to the last embers of their summer romance, literally squatting in the converted chicken coop that they’d rented, clinging in the bitter cold to “the point where the mold died back and the mice, disillusioned, moved on to warmer precincts.” Whereas they’d both been naked and alone together before that, high, drunk, or both, “But then it was September and it was raining and I had to go back to work.” Assume that he actually loves her on some level; that explains his pathetic attempts to provide for her (Chef Boyardee in the candlelight), to avoid the arguments that “stirred resentment, [since] resentment was what had brought us down the first time around.”

Birnam Wood is that miracle, an olive branch proffered at the moment of darkest, coldest despair — a glorified house-sitting gig in which the two can attempt to live responsibly (they even feign marriage, so as to impress the owners of the property), and give this relationship a final chance at a point when the tans have long since faded and the dim lights bring out your flaws. Nora even gets a job — a compromise, since we’re told early on that while she has a degree and is smart enough to do anything, “the idea [of work] didn’t appeal to her” — working as a hostess at a bar/restaurant. It’s easy to weather a relationship when it’s warm enough to sunbathe and you’ve all the time in the world to just lie there intertwined, the real test is what life will be like for them now that he’s working days as a substitute teacher, and she’s working nights. The routine holds, at first, but Boyle keeps hinting at the borrowed time they’re on, the point at which the late October weather will falter and truly put them to the test, and sure enough, the true test comes soon after.

One night, while drinking at Nora’s bar, Brennan’s (“as if some gauge inside me had been turned up high, all the way, top of the dial. I felt like that a lot back then–and maybe it was just an overload of testosterone, maybe that was all it was”), this young adult has a momentary lapse. While talking with a stranger around his own age, similarly educated and “hip,” he makes an absolutely honest mistake:

My feelings were complicated. I’d been drinking. And what I said next was inexcusable, I know that, and I didn’t mean it, not in any literal sense, not in the real world of twin beds and Persian carpets and all the rest, but what I was trying to convey here was that I wasn’t tied down–old lady–wasn’t a husband, not yet, anyway, and that all my potentialities were intact. “I don’t know,” I said. “She can be a real pain in the ass.”

Yes, he loves her. But yes, he also loves his freedom — there’s a whole reason the whole “men have commitment issues” cliche keeps circulating — and yes, he’s young and doesn’t quite know what it is that he wants in the world, doesn’t quite fathom what he already has, not in a lasting sense, not in any way beyond the moments that he understands enough to appreciate the beauty of. That very same night, Steve (the stranger from the bar) shows up at their home, forthright and needy in a way that Keith hasn’t been in quite some time (complacency!), having written a poem for Nora, having brought a bottle of pants-loosening tequila. And Keith, “furious suddenly,” marches out into the frigid night to cool down and come to terms with the emotions he hadn’t realized he’d had until now. He stands on the metaphoric edge of a frozen lake, “locked up like a vault below me,” and catches a mirrored glimpse across it — “the light in the house directly across the lake from ours.” What possesses him to dangerously march across that ice, to cross over to this glimpse of another life? Whatever the case, he finds “an ordinary room, a bedroom, lit like a stage.” And as he watches from the bushes, he sees an actual married couple’s interactions (not sexual, but profound, at least to Keith), sees what he’s in the process of losing. He doesn’t run home to defend his wife, or perhaps he does, later, in another story. But here, what Boyle presents to us, is the moment at which Keith grew up a little and realized what the winter looked like. “That [bedroom] light burned a long time. I know. Because I stayed there till it went out.”

It’s possible there’s a bit of transference or longing that I’m adding to my interpretation of this story, but the one thing I’ve always been thankful of in Boyle’s writing is that it’s always clean enough to allow for such attachment. Let’s read about flaws, then, and be less flawed ourselves.



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