NEW YORKER Stories
Does it still happen, I wonder, that a young man and woman, getting married after several years of what, in the days of my youth, was called "cohabitation" (regarded with dismay, if no longer with outrage, by older, decent people) — does it still happen that such young couples discover that marriage, which they took to be a purely outward solemnization of their feelings about one another, has in fact arrived like an officious in-law, lugging trunks of neurotic expectations that, had you asked them before the nuptials, both he and she would have not only disclaimed but pronounced themselves determined to avoid? Does it still happen that a few years of sharing a bed and a bathroom fails to render newlyweds as mutually familiar as expected?
Does it still happen that marriage "brings things out in people," inviting unpleasant comparisons to The Invasion of the Body Snatchers? I wonder. One day, you were a relatively hip young person, cool about accepting the gender-oriented peculiarities of your mate, easily accepting the buffets of the other's personal development. The next, you find yourself buying insurance and balancing the checkbook, and wondering why he can't pick up after himself and she can't get in and out of the bathroom in a "normal" amount of time.
Love and marriage are not significant aspects of the life of Tim Gautreaux's anti-hero, Julian Smith, but his plight, laid out as carefully as the body of Christ in a classic Deposition from the Cross, made me think of what happened to me and to some other people that I knew thirty-odd years ago. Not that a similarity in age figures in the reminder, either —
Julian was living in a sooty apartment next to an iron foundry in Memphis when he received a letter announcing that his great-grandfather’s estate had finally been cleared up. He stood in the doorway of his peeling duplex, his hands shaking as he read the terms. Most of the property had been sold off to satisfy liens and lawyers’ fees, but the old country house and six acres remained, along with twenty-eight thousand dollars. Julian was a thin man of sixty-three, balding, a typewriter repairman who worked out of his spare bedroom and kept to himself. The one time he'd seen the grand old home was when he was eight, riding past it on a gravel road with his mother, back when she could afford a car.
That is how the story begins: with an extremely unprepossessing man, leading a retired, regular existence. A typewriter repairman, you note, wondering if the story is set in the past. Even before Julian's destiny erupts from within him, Mr Gautreaux has you thinking of quaint old things like typewriters.
The house that Julian has inherited is not quaint. It is a monumental wreck, the mansion husk of a bygone way of life. Which is undoubtedly how Julian would have seen it had it been inherited by someone he knew, and not by him. Here is the second paragraph.
He went inside, out of the late-June heat, and sat in a duct-taped recliner to reread the terms of his good fortune. The only extra money he’d ever had was a hundred-dollar win on a scratch-off ticket. Before his mother died, he’d spent two years at a tiny local college and considered himself at least wealthy in knowledge, more so than the shopkeepers and records clerks he dealt with. Normally, he disparaged people who owned large houses, yet deep in his heart he’d stored the memory of the old mansion, the only grand thing in his family’s history. It had shamed him to long for the house, and now he owned it.
It were better, of course, to say that the house now has him, and that it keeps him until he runs dry, and then throws him away. We don't know at the outset if that's how the story is going to turn out, but with every sentence Mr Gautreaux decreases the possibility of a happy ending.
Take money. The handling of money in "Idols" is worthy of extensive study by any would-be short-story writer. It is hard to find a sentence in the two extracts that I have chosen that does not press a finger into Julian's modest means — his lifelong modest means. Julian's family may have come down in the world, but Julian himself has not.
(Or so a Yankee like me would put it.)
The state of Julian's finances — the dwindling of that twenty-eight thousand dollars — is alluded to, distantly, but only when absolutely necessary, because Julian, in thrall to his inheritance, simply does not think about money until there is no alternative. "In late October, the money finally ran out." We are not at the end of the story yet, however.
Julian sat down that night to balance his checkbook and found that he’d have to transfer money from his tiny emergency fund at the bank in Memphis to hold off his creditors for a week or so. After that, he was bankrupt.
We are not surprised to read this, but we are appalled, because, like Julian, or enough like Julian, we have been counting on something like divine intervention to assure Julian's restoration — of himself as well as of his house. By not mentioning money, by refusing to do the worrying that his character won't, Mr Gautreaux seduces us into forming very unreasonable hopes — hopes that seem to be concretized by the renovations that Julian pays a day laborer to make. Surely, if the wiring has been improved, and the bathroom made usable, everything will work out! But the writer has taken pains to issue a rough but unignorable statement of Julian's finances at the start, and nothing happens to increase the balance. Oil is not struck. Further inheritances are not bestowed. With our complete picture of the latter-day planter's resources, we ought to be holding our heads in our hands. Instead, we read on expectantly.
I said that the house takes possession of Julian, but in fact it is Julian's heritage, embodied by the house, that seizes him. Where another man might have been made insufferably conceited by such a heritage, Julian, thanks no doubt to those few years of higher education, is waspishly condescending. It is hard to tell where the manner of a respectable white man of the South leaves off and the ghost of the planter begins. Julian does not seem delusional or grandiose; on the contrary, he continues in his work as a typewriter repairman. He does expect his life to change: the moment that we realize that Julian is in over his head comes when he tells his hired man that he is going to change his name to that of his locally illustrious forebears, at some point in the future. That's the first that we've heard of it, because Julian does not share his thoughts with the reader. He does not share them with himself.
In Obie, the hired man who works for Julian in order to pay for the removal of his constellations of tattoos — his wife back in Georgia calls them idols, and execrates them as the devil's work — is a darkly rich character, a sort of benign cousin to Flannery O'Connor's Good Man. Mr Gautreaux deftly opposes Julian's hornbook knowledgableness with Obie's chthonic wisdom. Julian regards Obie as a laborer, but without Obie Julian cannot hope to live in the house. Typewriter repair turns out to be his only skill. When Obie leaves, our groundless hopes wilt in their sunless pots.
It is likely that some readers will scratch their heads and wonder if the writer doesn't realize how crazy Julian is. Mr Gautreaux certainly avoids spelling out what might drily be called the historical explanations for Julian's mad but clear-headed attempt to resuscitate the ante-bellum South, but anyone who has sat through Gone With The Wind will recognize first the glint in Julian's inner eye and then the glaucous film that blots it out.
Julian waited outside the doctor’s office, dozing behind the wheel, dreaming of tall gleaming pillars and him standing between them in an immaculate white suit. When the door on the passenger side opened, he woke up feeling sore and sour. He looked at his watch and frowned.
"Idols" is a very funny story — with all of the humor removed.
Copyright (c) 2009 Pourover Press