Sunday, June 28, 2015

Deal Me In, Week 26: "A Long Day's Dying" by William Eastlake

Have I ever mentioned that I love the synchronicity that occurs now and then with reading plans like Deal Me In? Yes? Well, this week reinforced that idea with a tale that takes place on the summer solstice, which occurred around the beginning of this week. The card this week was the 10 of spades, which took me to The Best American Short Stories 1964.

The summer solstice is the longest day of the year, and on this day a young man named Little Sant (his father is known as Big Sant) is out on his horse in a lonely New Mexico canyon. He tries to cross a low spot in the canyon but his horse refuses to cross. Little Sant gets off his horse and tries to coax his horse, and soon finds out why the horse refused: he's in a patch of quicksand and is trapped. The horse breaks free and makes his way to higher ground while Little Sant starts sinking, thus beginning his long day of dying. He's there for hours, in the hot New Mexico summer sun, and he thinks a million thoughts. He also begins to hallucinate, of course, and Eastlake does a fantastic job of using language and imagery to depict his hallucinations, which begin gradually -- so gradually that the reader is not quite sure where Little Sant crosses over from rational to irrational thought.

Meanwhile, Big Sant and an Indian named Rabbit Stockings (one of Little Sant's friends) have begun looking for Little Sant. Big Sant is convinced that his son traveled up into the mountains to gather up horses, but Rabbit Stockings is equally convinced that Little Sant went down into the canyon, and is drowning. Big Sant ridicules Rabbit Stockings's intuition, and in general the exchange between these two is actually a humorous part of what could otherwise be a depressing story:

But what happened to the boy? What happened to Little Sant? Probably his horse went lame. Don't ask Rabbit Stockings; Indians are alarmists. "You are, you know, Rabbit Stockings."

"What's that?"

"You want to make a big thing out of nothing. Does the peace pipe go from right to left or from left to right?"

"What's a peace pipe?"

"You see, you have gotten over many of your superstitions. Why don't you get over the rest?"

"If an Indian believes something it's called superstition; when a white man believes something it's called progress."

In the course of their conversation it comes out that Rabbit Stockings's guardian spirit is a snake, and not long after, up on the mountain they encounter a rattlesnake which spooks their horses. After this, Big Sant decides maybe they should check the canyon after all. When they get there, Little Sant is alive and out of the quicksand, due to a chance encounter with another snake which makes the reader go "Hmmmmmm...." -- not out of some unrealistic plot twist, but because of how the author skillfully ties the threads of the story together in the ending.

This was a highly entertaining and engrossing story, and I enjoyed it immensely.

The Deal Me In short story challenge is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Deal Me In, Week 25: "Customs of the Country" by Madison Smartt Bell

This week, the four of hearts took me to an excellent story by Madison Smartt Bell, from The Best American Stories 1989.

The unnamed narrator of "Customs of the Country" is a young woman trying to get her life back on track. She does not succeed in the way that she hopes, but she does succeed. She's trying to regain custody of her young son, Davey, after losing him due to her drug addiction. She has cleaned up, and it's been two years, and she's ready to get him back. So to prove that she's ready, she gets a waitressing job at a truckstop, and rents a small apartment in a not-very-prosperous part of town. She does her best to make the apartment clean and homey, despite the nightly spouse abuse that goes on next door (always ending with a body hitting the wall hard enough to knock her pots and pans off the kitchen wall).

As she makes preparations to get Davey back from his foster family, we learn her backstory: about her husband, Patrick, who started stealing drugs from the hospital where he worked as an orderly and selling them on the street; her addiction to these drugs, and her withdrawal from them when Patrick gets arrested; and the inevitable crash when, sick from her withdrawal, she slings Davey across the room just a little too hard and breaks his leg.

The reader really begins to root for this young woman, because she's trying so hard. In her words, "Sometimes you don't get but one mistake, if the one you pick is bad enough." And she knows she has to work as hard as she can to recover from her mistake. But it's not enough. The judge decides to keep Davey with his foster family, with the understanding that they will eventually adopt him. It's a tragic blow to the young woman. But she recovers in a way that is both surprising, shocking, and redemptive.

I can't say enough about this great story. It's one of those that sucks you in from the beginning and carries you along effortlessly until the climax, and it was very satisfying to read.

The Deal Me In short story challenge is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Deal Me In, Week 24: "The Convict" by James Lee Burke

The card: King of clubs

The anthology: The Best American Short Stories 1986

The story: "The Convict" by James Lee Burke

(This story is not in any way humorous, as implied by that photo of Buster Keaton in one of his roles, but I liked it.)

I don't know what it is, but the short story gods have been conspiring lately to line up a bunch of "childhood traumatic realization" stories for me to read lately. This one is certainly one of the better ones I have read lately.

This story takes place in and around the town of New Iberia in south Louisiana, in the early days of integration. It's told from the point of view of young Avery Broussard, whose father Will is a highly respected citizen of the town, even though he frequently holds unpopular viewpoints, such as integration might be OK, and an escaped black convict might possibly have a soul and a good reason for wanting to run away from prison.

On the way back home from town one Friday evening, Avery and his parents are stopped at a roadblock, where a state policeman warns the family that there's a couple of convicts who have escaped from the infamous Angola prison (the Louisiana State Penitentiary) and are on the loose. Of course one of the convicts ends up hiding out in the Broussards' shed, and Will's attempts to treat the man with common decency strains his relationship with his wife. Avery observes all this and tries to make sense of it. He admires his dad immensely, but he also knows that Will is doing something that could get him into lots of trouble, and he doesn't know what to make of any of it.

Will ends up helping the convict move on, but he ends up back at the Broussards' farm after being trapped by further roadblocks. Will has no choice but to turn the man in at this point, and how that happens (and the mental gymnastics the Sheriff has to go through to keep from letting any blame fall on Will for harboring the fugitive) makes for an interesting climax and denouement to the story.

I was unfamiliar with James Lee Burke's writing before reading this story, but Wikipedia informs me that he is a prolific writer, probably best known for his series of mysteries involving the character Dave Robicheaux. Since he hails from my general region, I think I will have to explore more of his writing.

The Deal Me In short story challenge is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Deal Me In, Week 23: "The Mail Lady" by David Gates

I love mail. I love sending it, receiving it, blogging about it -- you name it. So when I was composing my Deal Me In roster of stories for this year, I couldn't resist adding this one to the list just solely because of the title. The Queen of Diamonds picked it out for me from The Best American Short Stories 1994.

(The beautiful Queen of Diamonds card was designed by Romanian artist Roxana Ganescu.)

The story is told from the point of view of the main character, Lewis Coley, who has been partially incapacitated by a stroke. He has trouble walking and speaking, but is otherwise intelligent and alert, so he makes for a most interesting main character. All of his frustrations with daily life, his family, and his surroundings come out in the narrative, but he of course can't do much about any of them any more.

Lewis is not the most likeable character, however. He has found religion late in his life, before the stroke, and his religion is clearly important to him -- he treats his life post-stroke as a kind of cross he must bear, although he doesn't understand it. But in spite of his religious conversion, he manages to be a pompous, irritable, self-righteous know-it-all who is more or less alienated from his daughter Wiley, and his wife Alice. He's also embarrassed and over-sensitive about his illness, wondering how Alice can possibly still put up with him. Although he doesn't sound very nice, the reader does learn to sympathize with Lewis and what he is going through, because his interior monologue and memories constitute the entire story.

So how does the mail lady from the title figure into all this? Well, I don't want to give away too much of the story, because I definitely think it's worth your time to find and read. But in short, the mail lady is a Mrs. Laffond, who dresses in mannish clothes (in Lewis' opinion) and drives a big pickup truck that often comes to the rescue of townspeople whose cars are stuck in ditches. Such is Lewis' small and bigoted mind that he suspects Mrs. Laffond of being a lesbian even though she has been married with children and he has no other evidence to go on than what she drives and how she dresses. However, the point of the story seems to be that Lewis is supposed to be paying a penance through his illness that is teaching him humility and his reliance on others -- so you just know Mrs. Laffond is going to come to his rescue at some point in the story. And she does.

I enjoyed this story a lot. It was a long story, but Lewis' interior monologue was so engrossing that it was a relatively quick read.

The Deal Me In short story challenge is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.