"Herman Wouk Is Still Alive" is not a happy story.
If you've read it then you already know that. (If you haven't read it, by the way, then you are advised to do so before you continue reading this review of it, because I will be discussing it in full detail. As of the time I wrote this review, the story was still available online here.) However, I thought it was worth mentioning that things might get a little grim in this review.
To counterbalance that somewhat, allow me to offer this cheerful image:
If you're asking yourself what's so cheerful about that image, I don't know that I can help you. Honestly, what isn't cheerful about the idea of a lightsaber-wielding Batman moments away from slaying a Great White?
A summary of "Herman Wouk Is Still Alive": An impoverished single mother, Brenda, wins $2700 and decides to take a road trip with her best friend (who is also an impoverished single mother). She's keenly aware of how shitty her life is, and of the near-certainty that that status is never going to change, and that it will be passed down to her children, and to their children, and so forth. Seeing no happy endings in sight, she -- with implicit approval from her friend -- decides to end it all by ramming their rented van into a tree at high speed, snuffing out the lives of everyone inside it. Intertwined with this story are visits with two elderly poets who observe the "accident" when it interrupts a picnic they are having.
This isn't a terribly lengthy story -- it ran seven pages in The Atlantic -- but there is plenty to talk about. Let's start by discussing the controversial element of the familicidal character of Brenda. King took some heat from readers of The Atlantic, who found his depictions of Brenda and her BFF Jasmine to be stereotypical. One letter-writer had this to say:
Another, this:“The poor” are silenced by the stereotypes projected onto them from the dominant culture, and King doesn’t offer anything in the characters to counter these assumptions. Be sentimental about it if you like, but if he depends on clichés rather than seeking to depict people authentically, he’s perpetuating, rather than dismantling, these notions of the poor. King has proved that he understands the poor only as an observer.
King was given an opportunity to rebut, and had this to say:
The reality is that real people exist behind the fiction, and it’s the (good) writer’s job to recognize this and seek to reflect this complexity in their writing. I’m not saying that writers cannot write from different perspectives, but perhaps King should stick to exploring the complexities of his own existence, before venturing to expose the complexities of other people’s existences—which he seems unable to comprehend.
(Those quotations were drawn from this site, by the way.)
These are people I’ve known and worked with all my life. One wonders if those crying “stereotype” have had the same opportunity. The idea that I am living in some sort of ivory tower and have no contact with the real world is a stereotype in itself. Those who want to meet my ladies need only to come to Bangor. Their counterparts live here, work here (or look for work here), go to AA meetings here, and live the life. I live it with them. Why would I not? I grew up with them.
Most of the criticisms of King here seem to proceed from an assumption: that it was his goal to have Brenda and Jasmine serve as archetypes of some sort, and for them to stand in as a statement about what King thinks of poor people (specifically: poor, fat, single women with multiple children).
I think it's the wrong one to make, but I can see how and why a reader would make that assumption. On the one hand, I don't think King is saying "This is what poor people are like." However, I do think he's saying "This is what hopelessness can drive a person to do," and I think he's banking on achieving two simultaneous results that are at odds with one another (if not flat-out contradictory): he wants us to understand Brenda and sympathize with her, and he also wants us to be contemptuous toward her and judgmental of her actions. It's up to each individual to decide whether he pulled it off. I think he did; not perfectly, but I think he managed it well enough for me to call the story a success.
The story begins from Brenda's point of view, and right off the bat, we are told several things about Brenda: that her initial impulse to go buy a bottle of Orange Driver to celebrate her winnings; that she instead opts to pay off a maxed-out credit card; and that her grand idea is to take a trip to show off her grandchildren to her parents in the hopes of getting some money out of them. Shortly after this, we find out that her friend -- Jasmine -- was "broken in" by her own father at the age of fifteen, and that her knowing mother did nothing about it. These two women have several children each, with names like "Delight" and "Truth" and "Freedom"; one of them works at a skating rink, the other doesn't know who fathered one of her children. These women and their children live "pretty much on noodles and Pepsi and hat cheap ice cream they sell at Walmart." As King says, these "are the fat women nobody wants to see when they're on the streets, the ones no guy wants to pick up in the bars unless the hour is late and the mood is drunk and there's nobody better in sight." Money is hard to come by, and the future stretches out before them like an endless desert.
Even having won $2700 and successfully talked her friend into taking a road trip with her brings no real happiness:
And, later:Brenda should be happy, she knows she should. The kids are quiet, the road stretches ahead of her like an airport runway, she's behind the wheel of a brand-new van, and the traffic is light, especially once they leave Portland behind. The digital speedometer reads 70, and this baby hasn't even broken a sweat. Nonetheless, that greyness has begun to creep over her again. The van isn't hers, after all. She'll have to give it back. A foolish expense, really, because what's at the far end of this trip, up in Mars Hill? Food brought in from the Round-Up Restaurant, where she used to work when she was in high school and still had a figure. Hamburgers and fries covered with plastic wrap. The kids splashing in the pol before and maybe after. At least one of them will get hurt and bawl. Maybe more. And Glory will complain that the water is too cold, even if it isn't. Glory always complains. She will complain her whole life. Brenda hates that whining and likes to tell Glory it's her father coming out ... but the truth is, the kid gets it from both sides. Poor kid. All of them, really. All poor kids, headed into poor lives.
Freddy will go for a soldier and fight in foreign lands, the way Jasmine's brother Tommy did. Jasmine's boys, Eddie and Truth, will do the same. They'll own muscle cars when and if they come home, and if gas is still available twenty years from now. And the girls? They'll go with boys. They'll give up their virginity while game shows play on TV. They'll have babies and fry meat in skillets and put on weight, same as she and Jasmine did. They'll smoke a little dope and eat a lot of ice cream -- the cheap stuff from Walmart. Maybe not Rosellen, though. Something is wrong with Rosellen. She'll need to go to the special-ed classes. She'll still have drool on her sharp little chin when she's in the eighth grade, same as now. The seven kids will beget seventeen, and the seventeen will beget seventy, and the seventy will beget two hundred. She can see a ragged fool's parade marching into the future, some wearing jeans that show the ass of their underwear, some wearing heavy metal T-shirts, some wearing gravy-spotted waitress uniforms, some wearing stretch pants from Kmart that have little MADE IN PARAGUAY tags sewn into the seams of the roomy seats. She can see the mountain of Fisher-Price toys they will own and that will later be sold at yard sales (which is where most were bought in the first place). They will buy the products they see on TV and go in debt to the credit-card companies, as she did ... and will again, because the Pick-4 was a fluke and she knows it. Worse than a fluke, really: a tease. Life is basically a rusty hubcap lying in a ditch at the side of the road, and life goes on. She will never again feel like she's sitting in the cockpit of a jet fighter. This is as good as it gets. Her ship will not come in. There are no boats for nobody, and no camera is filming her life. This is reality, not a reality show.There is nothing fantastical here, nothing that stretches the imagination. If anything, it's a stretch of the imagination to read those descriptions and not sympathize with the hopelessness.
It's one thing to feel hopeless, of course, and another thing entirely to purposefully smash a van into a tree at a hundred miles per hour in an attempt to kill yourself, your best friend, and your accumulated children. That, surely, is a decision that only a fractionally tiny percentage of people would ever come to, and with that in mind, it's difficult to take it seriously when someone suggests that these are stereotypical characters.
If, on the other hand, you wanted to accuse King of perhaps not quite sticking the landing in terms of drawing Brenda in such a way as to make it believable that she would leap from hopelessness to running the van into a tree, I'm more sympathetic. He might have been able to do it if he had a novel's length to work with, but here, he doesn't quite make it work.
But that's okay. In a way, the whole point of the story is the idea that such an act is fundamentally not understandable, because the real focus of the story isn't on the pathetic women so much as it is on the two poets.
These characters -- Phil Henreid and Pauline Enslin -- are in the grey years of their lives, and King puts some fine touches in as he describes their younger selves:
Phil smiles. The wind blows the gone-to-seed dandelion puff of his hair. His scalp shines gauzily through. He's not the young man who once came roistering out of Brooklyn, broad-shouldered as a longshoreman (and just as foulmouthed), but Pauline can still see the shadow of that man, who was so full of anger, despair, and hilarity.
"We're a couple of old crocks," she says, and bursts into laughter. Once she had sex with a king and a movie star at pretty much the same time on a balcony while "Maggie May" played on the gramophone, Rod Stewart singing in French.These are no longer those people; once longshoremen and sexpots, they are now old people whose age is "late, but not quite yet last call." It is easy to feel a sense of imminent fading from them: they are mostly healthy and energetic now (apart from some arthritis), but are also at the age when that can change drastically seemingly overnight, at which point even the memory of those broad shoulders and that sexuality strong enough to tempt movie stars and kings will fade forever.
Interestingly, there is very little such attitude present in either character. Instead, they both seem focused -- as many old people are, one assumes -- on just living in the here and now, for as long as they able, as happily as they are able. It is here that the story's title comes into play, as Phil reads an article called "Nonagenarian Wouk to Publish New Book."
I know very little about Herman Wouk. He is one of any number of writers whose name I have been familiar with for my entire mature reading life. Mentally, I put him in the "historical fiction" category alongside James Clavell and James Michener, probably due to seeing their books all in the same sections in various used bookstores and thrift shops as a child; I don't know if that is an accurate reflection of Wouk's work or not, and in some ways, I don't know that it matters.
If anything, my vaguely-knowledgeable indifference works for this story's narrative. In my consciousness, Wouk is already a ghost of sorts, and always has been from the first moment I became aware of him ... and yet, despite the fact that his work has had virtually no impact on me (and on any number of people similar to me), it is nevertheless certain that it had an impact of some sort on many others, and even if it didn't, he's still pursuing that work. Herman Wouk does not notice that I'm not noticing him. Herman Wouk is still alive, and he is too busy pursuing that life to worry about people like me. In fact, he doesn't show too many signs of being worried about his ever-more-likely death: "The ideas don't stop just because one is old," he says in the article Phil reads. "The body weakens, but the words never do."
In some ways, this attitude seems to mirror the attitudes with which Phil and Pauline are going about their own lives, and because the link the three of them share is that they are writers, it is easy -- and almost certainly accurate -- to project that attitude onto King himself. King turned 64 in 2011; he has reached what most people consider to be retirement age, and so is (arguably) officially an "old person." And yet, he continues to produce fiction at a remarkable rate: a very well-reviewed 800+-page novel, plus five short stories and several non-fiction pieces, were published in 2011, and at least two more novels are already finished and awaiting publication. The man is still writing novels, short stories, poems, screenplays, comic-book scripts, essays, and who knows what else. The words truly seem to not be stopping, and so far, the body doesn't appear to be weakening too much, either.
It's hard for me not to read this story and project a bit, imagining that when King is writing about Wouk, he's writing about what he hopes can be his own future: a man still producing notable prose at an age more than thirty years advanced from his own current age! Being -- obviously -- a massive enthusiast for King's work, I can say with certainty that I would love to see another three solid decades of healthy and happy life and work from King.
It is always folly to read too much autobiography into an author's work, of course, and I don't want to go too far down that road. With that in mind, I'd like to wrap up such notions by mentioning that I find it interesting that King made his two poets, Phil and Pauline, a good decade older than he is himself. Personally, I find that also to be a sign of optimism. Kind of a second layer of it, almost as if King is saying to himself (and to us): hey, I'm not as old as these two old coots, and they aren't even close to being as old as old Herman Wouk ... and HE'S STILL WRITING, so that's pretty goddamn good news for me, ain't it?
Indeed it is.
From here, of course, we have to return to Brenda and Jasmine and the horrible day-to-day lives, which will soon be reaching their end. I find Phil and Pauline to be the most important characters in the story, because they seem to most accurately reflect King's own viewpoints, but those viewpoints would have considerably less weight if Brenda's sad tale was not there to serve as a counterbalance to it. The poets are characters who are, by definition, not too far from death's door; sure, they might continue on for a while longer, and might even make the march toward the big 100, as Wouk is doing ... but then again, they might just as easily pass away in the middle of their next night. Both scenarios are equally unlikely; the actuality lies somewhere in between the two options, but both are viable.
And yet, they are able to remain optimistic.
Compare that with Brenda. She is -- despite her situation -- young and healthy, and in the actuarial sense of things, she has years and years and years of life left. And yet, she has almost no optimism for those years whatsoever. She is debt-ridden, saddled with children she doesn't seem to like much if at all, unable to find a job, unable to find a good partner, and unlikely to see any improvements on any of those fronts. She has nowhere to go, and nobody to go there with except for her friend Jasmine, who is (if anything) even worse-off than Brenda is herself. In the figurative sense of the word, we would not be wrong to say that Brenda has nothing to live for, and as the story develops she decides that that sentiment is true not only figuratively, but also literally. Her decision to end all of the pathetic lives in that van is a deplorable one ... but it's also an empathetic one.
Interestingly, King takes several opportunities to illustrate the idea that Brenda has some of the same artistic leanings that Pauline the poet has. Brenda is imaginative -- after all, it takes both self-awareness and imagination, plus the ability to use the one to extrapolate in regards to the other, to come to the sorts of bleak decisions Brenda comes to here -- and there are occasional flashes of an ability to successfully translate those talents into imagery. Take this passage, which follows Brenda's thoughts about the likelihood of Jasmine getting some of the money her parents received from the government as compensation for her brother's death in the military:
And she knows things like government money are mostly a mirage. This is something they both know. Every time you see bright stuff, somebody turns on the rain machine. The bright stuff is never colorfast.Or this one, in which she begins to envision the bleak futures her and Jasmine's children -- and the children they themselves will spawn -- seem likely to inherit:
Brenda sees a horn of plenty spilling rotten fruit. Yes, she thinks, that's just about right. Thanksgiving for fools.This is a surprisingly effective, and sad, image. I suppose one could cry foul on the subject of someone like Brenda being able to conjure an image of that sort, but I don't think it's done haphazardly on King's part. Quite the contrary, in fact.
There are several points in the story in which Brenda thinks of her life -- her condition -- in terms of being "gray." It is an emotion she is feeling, and yet her mind leans toward trying to interpret that emotion in visual terms. Brenda does not have the ability to consciously develop that sort of artistic leaning, but it is certainly present, and the above quotations indicate that her mind is more than capable of producing imagery as a byproduct. It is very possible indeed to imagine that if Brenda were in different circumstances, and had the leisure to do so, she might learn to become an artist of some sort.
There are some echoes of her in Pauline's work, in fact. Take these lines from the poem of Pauline's that Phil reads aloud:
As we know, Pauline is -- to a slight, but nevertheless conscious, degree -- sadly nostalgic for her lost youth, her lost vibrancy, her faded (if not entirely vanished) sexuality. It seems, at least here, to be motivating her work. Brenda has similar thoughts, and while they are not expressed as fluidly, and are perhaps not as grand as Pauline's recollections of movie stars and kings, it comes to roughly the same thing:
The clouds boil apart and a phantom discseems to race behind them.It bursts through!For five seconds it could be summerand I seventeen with flowersin the lap of my dress.
Brenda thinks, How did we end up with all these kids? Wasn't I letting Mike Higgins cop a feel of me out behind the metal shop just yesterday?Crude, perhaps, but the essential sentiment remains the same: Wasn't I just [fill in the blank] yesterday? How did I get from there to here so quickly?
I don't find this to be a political story, and I don't want to turn the discussion of it into a political discussion; that would be the wrong way to go. However, it's difficult for me not to see an indictment of our culture in this story. If Brenda is a character who seems to have the undeveloped gift for artistry that the older, more advantaged Pauline also possessed and was able to the develop and utilize, it seems to become necessary to ask the question: why was Pauline able to live the life she lived, whereas Brenda is able only to live a demeaning and joyless life, one which she would rather bring to an end than continue?
There is no easy answer for that question, of course, and I don't think King means to imply one. Sometimes, it is sufficient to simply pose a question, and I think that is what this story does effectively.
A few remaining thoughts I feel the need to toss off before bringing this one to a close:
- This reads a bit like a story King wrote to answer for himself the question, "What kind of person gives children names like 'Delight', 'Truth', and 'Freedom'?"
- The poets' last names -- Henreid and Enslin -- make me think of Lloyd Henreid from The Stand and Mike Enslin from "1408." I don't think anything should be read into that, either from a plot standpoint or a thematic one, but with King's work you never know.
- Here is yet another story which takes place at a rest area, like "Rest Stop" before it and "Mile 81" after it. And isn't there a stop-off at one in "The Road Virus Heads North"?
- Pauline thinks about the meal she and Phil will be served at their poetry festival as "beige food," meaning bland and unremarkable. This is a more conscious version of the way in which Brenda thinks about her hopelessness in terms of being "gray."
- Phil and Pauline also put me in mind of Bobbi Anderson and Jim Gardner from The Tommyknockers. Not much significance to that, apart from King's frequent use of writers as characters, but the two of them did cross my mind.
- Did Rod Stewart actually record a French-language version of "Maggie May"? If so, I may need to locate it, because I love that song.
- There is a brilliant, haunting moment of connection between Brenda and the poets when Brenda notices their parked Cadillac shortly before making the decision to crash the van: "Here is the rest area, coming up fast. Brenda sees only one car in the parking lot. It looks like a fancy one, a Lincoln or maybe a Cadillac. I could have rented one of those, she thinks. I had enough money but too many kids. Couldn't fit them all in. Story of her life, really." Here, Brenda is seeing more than merely a Cadillac: she is seeing, in dim and indistinct terms, the life she COULD have led. Again, she is thinking instinctively in poetic and metaphoric terms.
- The wreck itself is horrific. King shows restraint in describing it, which is appropriate for a non-genre story appearing in The Atlantic. However, he is still able to get some serious mileage out of it, and in his descriptions of Phil's actions, he does so. An onlooker asks Pauline what has happened, and King replies: "Down below them a skinny old poet is happening." (A beautiful sentence, that.) "He's now naked to the waist. He has taken off his shirt to cover one of the other bodies. His ribs are a stack outlined against white skin. He kneels and spreads the shirt. He raises his arms into the sky, then lowers them and wraps them around his head."
- This story has its origins in a bet King had with his son, the writer Owen King. King the elder revealed those origins in a fine interview which appeared on the Atlantic's website: "Every year my son Owen and I have a bet on the NCAA March Madness Tournament, and last year the stakes were that the loser would have to write a story [with a title] the winner gave to him. And I lost." I enjoyed Owen King's story collection, We're All In This Together, and I'd be interested to see the two Kings collaborate on a story together. A similar collaboration between King and his other son, Joe Hill, yielded spectacular results in the Richard Matheson homage "Throttle." (By the way, that interview with King is well worth reading, and can be found here.)