THE KING'S COUNCIL
In which your Sovereign Majesty gets an earful on contemporary literature from your loyal councillors
[PUSHCART PRIZE XXXI: BEST OF THE SMALL PRESSES], Bill Henderson, Ed.
"The Odds it Would Be You," by Alice Mattison
J. Todd Gillette: Alice Mattison should put “The Odds It Would Be You” out in a Wii version. Imagine the workout. Reading this, I had a sense of charging through a labyrinth, sword drawn, striking out at every peculiarity of speech, every spectre of portent, every spasm of bizarrely out-of-place dialogue or discordant observation, knowing that each could yield an empowering gem. Literary entertainment with multiple skill levels. That, bless her, was Ms. Mattison’s objective. Here’s the story’s first paragraph:
“In 1976, when Bradley Kaplowitz was twenty-eight, he took lessons and learned to drive. A New Yorker with a pocket full of subway tokens costing fifty cents each, he rented a Dodge Dart so he could take his bald mother, Bobbie, on vacation. Bradley worked at a downtown bookstore, where a regular customer had mentioned an old-fashioned resort in the Adirondacks, at which he’d spent a week or two each summer since childhood. ‘Loons!’ said the man. Though Bradley was hoping to be a writer, he didn’t know what kind of birds loons were. The man described cabins at the edge of a lake. The dining room served three meals a day, he said, but the place wasn’t fancy. ‘Nothing dressy,’ Bobby had said.”
Pretty awful opening, you think. Well, it is. But Mattison is focused on the game, and whatever game it is has started without you if you worry over linguistic niceties and don’t pick up on the clues. The year, the subway reference, the startling proclamation “Loons!” by the bookstore customer, and the narrator’s strange juxtaposition of the literary and ornithological, seem to varying degrees extraneous, intrusive, awkward, and generally at odds with the standards, King’s English-wise, of good prose-craft. But swing your blade on these oddities and you’ll get, (a) a pending celebration of independence; (b) the establishment of Bradley as a traveler in the underworld, first element in an extended ferryman metaphor; (c) a denunciation; and (d) direction to Shakespeare to learn that Bradley is a lout and idler, and (possibly) to Webster to find a second Scottish derivation of “loon” intended for Bradley’s mother: harlot. This is interesting stuff, Mattison’s laying waste to first impressions for the sake of more ambitious purposes. She keeps it up throughout. The question is, is it worth it?
the manner in which Mattison resolves the story
The story is a simple one, linear with precious little back-filling. Bradley, our 28-year-old, just-driving, gay but partner-less idler, takes his just-dying mother on vacation to, of all places, the haunted shores of Big Moose Lake in the Adirondacks, where, in 1906, one Chester Gillette dispatched his mistress, Grace Brown, to give the twentieth century its first great criminal case and Theodore Dreiser the basis for his 1925 novel, An American Tragedy. They stay in a rustic cabin on the lakeshore, keeping to themselves, and, in the concluding scenes, taking a late-afternoon canoe excursion on the lake. Then, with evening falling, Bradley paddles against the wind, eyes straining in vain to find familiar landmarks, but is unable to find his way back.
The story is, on the surface, so straightforward, and the characters’ behavior so enigmatically good, so thoughtful and careful, that examination of the story’s Gothic underpinnings are necessary to find, indeed, a story at all.
First, the setting. Most of the action takes place at the resort, set deep in the hills of upstate New York: the choice of locale is so specific that we cannot overlook the lake’s symbolic significance, nor Dreiser’s title, whose explicit message overhangs our story like a banner. Secondarily, the enveloping woods lend a quality of death-in-life unreality, and appear, in fact, to symbolize death itself.
“They reached the resort after five. When Bradley opened the car door, the air was pungent with the smell of the woods. His legs trembled as he walked to the office to check in, while Bobbie waited in the car. He put from his mind the knowledge that he’d have to drive as far again in only a week.”
Here the smell of the woods is equated with the smell of death, setting one’s legs to trembling, and sparking the unsettling thought that one’s own death is not so far off. The story’s final paragraph carries both the woods and ferryman metaphors home:
"'Someone will come along,' his mother said, and he knew she knew they were lost.
"'That’s right,' said Bradley; but he saw no boats. The tangled woods came down to the lake, and it seemed that nobody lived in them. Stroking and stroking, his tired hands gripping the paddle, his throat aching, Bradley brought his mother a little farther, then again a little farther, over the water.”
Mattison also would seem to connect wood as a material to the subject of death. The canoe, in the final scene, could be aluminum, fiberglass or, I suppose, birch-bark, but is, of course, wooden. Then there is this wonderfully strange vignette:
"'The wood boy will come to your cabin every morning at 6:30,' the woman in the office told him placidly.
"'The what?' It sounded like an animal. Bradley looked past her as she sat in front of the window. The lake glittered in the late afternoon sun. He heard the whirr of a motorboat, then saw it pulling a water-skier, who fell. The boat circled round for her.
"'The wood boy. He’s quiet.’' Water in the cabin, she said, was heated by the fireplace, The wood boy would start a fire each morning, so Bradley and his mother could take hot showers.
"He got back into the car and described this arrangement to his mother, afraid she’d scold or grow petulant, feeling guilty for luring her here. The man in the bookstore hadn’t mentioned the wood boy.”
Sure, Bradley is over-sensitive to his mother’s reactions, but why all the worry over the wood boy? Mattison allows her character to behave unnaturally here and does so for the sake of her symbolism. But what is the wood boy? If wood is metaphorically synonymous with death, then, as the stealthy bringer of the elements of death, he might symbolize Bobbie’s disease. Or, he could be code for the Anglo-Saxon Wodin, the carrier-off of the dead. I lean toward the latter.
In discussing Mattison’s characters and their conflicts, we are at a disadvantage, “The Odds It Would Be You” being, I learned online, the final installment of a series of interconnected stories. I’m confused, for example, by Bradley’s odd musings over his mother’s boyfriend, Edwin Friend, who, though the same age as Bobbie, has grown “old from fear, though he was well.” Do earlier stories explain this fear, this aging? Bradley wonders what marrying Edwin would have meant to his mother: “—would she have gotten well, gotten her hair back, a tentative fuzz, then a soft crew cut, then thickening curls?” This triangle, Bradley-Bobbie-Edwin, with its undertone of jealousy and overtones of decay and regret and failed magic, has a distinct Arthurian feel (note, too, in the above excerpt, how our placid lady seems to emerge from the glittering waters of the lake, and don’t forget the Excalibur hat-pin), but otherwise does not seem to represent a crucial conflict or theme.
Bradley’s feelings toward Bobbie, despite lurid glimpses of her in the off-color turban, taking meds “like a starlet in a movie tossing down barbiturates after being left by her lover,” then sleeping with “her lipsticked mouth open, her head tilted back…her turban askew,” do not seem terribly conflicted. His conflict is internal and primarily about a lack of self-worth, fear for approval, and coming to terms with his mother’s death. In the first half of the story, his concerns are about Bobbie’s acceptance of his arrangements.
"'Oh, honey, look,' she called. He knew what she meant: it was what they had imagined: birch trees, evergreen, the lake, and dense woods behind it. He was giddy with relief…"
Later he and Bobbie commune over a skein of yarn.
"Now Bradley hitched his chair closer to his mother’s so he could hold the skein on his outstretched wrists. As Bobbie wound the ball, Bradley tried to be even more helpful, tilting the skein this way and that by raising one arm slightly, then the other, his palms up. Without the yarn, he would have looked like someone beseeching."
A moment later, she begins to apologize for leaving him, and he shushes her. They have not spoken of her coming death. In the scene which follows, call it the onion soup scene, Bradley metaphorically confronts both the word and nauseating fact of death, while Mattison, never above having fun, also illustrates the creative writing process:
"'I can talk, it’s all right.' Bradley said, but he couldn’t endure the sensation, the sense of something caught. 'Excuse me.' He left the dining room. It was still raining lightly. Outside the building, he leaned over, panicky now, pressing his hands on his knees. He didn’t care if he vomited, even if everyone in the dining room saw. He coughed and retched, but nothing came. Had the object moved? Was it blocking his windpipe? At last, as his eyes teared, he strained and brought up saliva, and something. He drew it out: a woody brown piece of the skin of an onion. His throat was swollen from his straining. He dropped the onionskin, wiped his eyes on his sleeve, and returned to the dining room… The waitress, a college girl, approached him. 'Are you all right?'
"'I’m fine,' Bradley said. 'I had a piece of onionskin lodged in my throat, but I coughed it up.'"
Following this, the rainy skies clear and their talk is more forthright.
For Bobbie, the issue is her son’s future without her, and the possibility that she has not been sufficiently nurturing, that he has been a better son than she has been a mother, and that her inattention, her failure to hold on to Bradley’s father, has produced an incomplete man not ready to cope without her. She worries over his gayness and the empty life that suggests to her. Yet she seems to accept her son’s assurances to the contrary and smiles bravely, even as she and Bradley face their separate oblivions together.
The manner in which Mattison resolves the story (and apparently the volume, In Case We’re Separated) is inspired. Figuratively on a River Lethe, Bradley and Bobbie forget nothing—he recalls a map in perfect detail; instead, the landscape is transmogrified; in effect, the world forgets them. This personal and tangible reflection on the transient nature of man and artist justifies, at least for me, the whole story.
So, Bill, was it worth it? I’ll admit I hated it on first read. Without taking the sword to the anomalies, it just looked like writing without focus or discipline. I do wish the symbols, etc. weren’t so obvious and distracting, and that they followed some overarching and discernable logic. But once onto the game, I appreciated Mattison’s playful intelligence, and I adore that ending.
Now, what’s all this double sestina business?
Let's go back to loons for an second. (I can't help it; I'm
living in exile in Minnesota, where loons are the state bird.) Perhaps
we really are supposed to infer that Bradley's mother is a harlot, but
I can't help thinking about the creatures themselves: for the most part
solitary, rumored (incorrectly, as it turns out, but still resonantly)
to mate for life, and possessed of a plaintive, yodeling call. I think
the reason Mattison sends Bradley and his mother off to their
loon-haunted lake has everything to do with loneliness.
"It's not always a bad thing, not to marry. At least I was married long enough to have you!"
"Yes," Bradley said to her back, not sure where this was going.
"Something I think about, " she said. "You know, honey. The way you are. Now, I don't think there's anything wrong with it, you know. But not to marry, have children..."
"Yes," said Bradley stroking hard. He steered past an inlet that looked narrow and shallow. The shore beyond it curved out, then in. He saw only a few houses in the dense evergreen woods.
"I think -- if your father had stayed, if I'd been different, a different sort of mother. Maybe it wouldn't have happened."
Bradley was silent, considering what to say. He felt angry, and paddled hard but didn't speak until the feeling passed. "I can't imagine being different," he said then. "I was meant to be gay."
"Then it's all right?" she said, her back in a white sweater in front of him, her head looking ahead of her in its foolish turban.
"It's all right."
While they ate dessert, the chef came out of the kitchen and walked over to the table.
He was a skinny man in an apron and a chef's hat. "I just want to apologize," he said.
"Oh, it's nothing," Bradley said, wishing the incident would end.
"I saw the onionskin fall into the pot, but I just couldn't find it," the chef said. "I was afraid somebody would get it. Now, what were the odds it would be you?"
The chef asks this
(and gives the story its title) as if there is something mysterious and
meaningful in the fact that Bradley got the bad bowl, but Bradley, who
knows at least a little about probability, sees that this isn't the
case. Somebody had to get that bowl -- just like someone else
might have to get cancer, or be gay. There's neither mystery nor
meaning to it -- there's just luck.
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