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NEW YORKER Stories

T Coraghessan Boyle

"A Death in Kitchawank"

January 18, 2010

Mrs Dalloway's name comes up, but it's To the Lighthouse that "A Death in Kitchawank" bends toward in imaginative homage. The implicit gesture becomes palpable at the second break, after the first of seven scenes in the life of Miriam a woman whose real-life correlative appears to have been almost as important to T C Boyle as Julia Stephen was to her daughter.

Time jumps and jumps again, the maples struck with color, the lake giving up a thin sheet of wrinkled ice along the shore, and then there's the paucity of winter with its skeletal trees and the dead fringe of reeds stuck like an old man's beard in the gray jaws of the ice.

The death of Mrs Ramsay has no counterpart in this passage; to say that Miriam doesn't die until the end of the story seems awfully heavy-handed, given the writer's light touch. Mr Boyle's tale is not so much a re-telling as a portrait sketched with the tools and the palette that Woolf perfected for her most beloved novel. The lines are different, to be sure. But if this story is easier to read than To the Lighthouse, that is arguably because the powerful compressions of Woolf's style have passed into more general use, unencumbered by the eccentricities and the anxieties of Woolf's curiosity. Or perhaps the curiosity hasn't been dispensed with, but, instead, frankly replaced by the occasional bracketed interpositions, set in smaller type, of the author's autobiographical commentary. I don't want to belabor the connection between the great novel and this new story, but only to note it.

Kitchawank (Mr Boyle has named his fictional setting after a local Indian tribe) is one of the lakeside working-class "colonies" that were developed on the perimeter of New York's metropolitan area, from Fire Island to the Catskills, between the wars.

All is well. And so what if the warm shifting sand beneath her feet has to be trucked in every other year at the expense of the Kitchawank Colony Association, its hundreds of billions of individual grains disappearing into the high grass, washing into the lake, adhering to toes and arches and tanned sinewy ankles only to wind up on bathroom tiles and beneath the kitchen sink? It's as essential as air, as water itself; how could you have a beach without it?

How could you have a beach, that is, on an inland lake, in the deep countryside of northern Westchester, far from the commuter train lines and the expensive school districts. Miriam's husband, Sid, is a sheet-metal worker, which means that the Kitchawank house is a year-round residence, not a summer place. But Mr Boyle has no intention of placing Miriam in a social context; his design is to set her free. In a purely material sense, the story begins with Miriam in her prime, the happily married mother of three, and her bridesmaid, Marsha, is still her  best friend. In each successive story, something or other is taken away from her her children grow up and go off, but do not get married; Sid falls on the paddleball court in a skirmish and (according to one of those autobiographical incursions) dies three days later. But these losses do not weigh Miriam down; just the opposite.  

Their voices rise and fall, immemorial. Someone laughs. A radio buzzes, seeking the signal. Thwock. Thwock. She knows it will all be lost, everything we make, everything we love, everything we are.

The reflection does not trouble Miriam, but barely ruffles her quiet relaxation into a final nap.

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