Dec/Jan 2011

Into the Wild

James Gibbons


It's best to read Joseph McElroy's Night Soul slowly, warily even, because you're never far from an unexpected swerve, a surprising shift of gears, or a disclosure of inconspicuous import. Not all these sly, oblique, yet affecting stories are set in the city, but the mode is always urban to the core—a crowding together of impressions and perceptions not necessarily in harmony, and just as likely to deepen ambiguity as to clarify. Take this portrait of an aggressive stranger on the subway who accosts a fellow New Yorker in "Silk, or the Woman with the Bike": "To hear her speak, she was quite unafraid. Or it was where she was coming from, a woman almost haggard, almost beautiful. Irritable. Short with him. Not just your blunt city person in passing, and not passing but arrived like a coincidence." Beautiful or haggard, or both, or neither: The woman's portrait keeps shifting, revising itself as the agitated phrases trip forward. Yet the description's fuzziness is precisely what gives it its power, uncanny as the feeling of "coincidence" called forth by the woman.

Like his monumental novels such as Lookout Cartridge (1974) and Women and Men (1987), McElroy's stories are awash in fragmentary stimuli, as everyone is nowadays, and they impart a sense of wading through a mysterious, ever-changing current. Which is not to say McElroy's concerns are abstruse or exotic. Family melodrama, the hoariest of genres, provides the framework for stories like "The Unknown Kid," where an overworked businessman copes with a fraying marriage and his precocious "zombie of a kid whom I sometimes wonder if I reach or am like anymore." "Character," a man's recollection of a boyhood summer in Vermont twenty-five years earlier, is built on that well-documented opposition of the country versus the city: A family of vacationing urbanites are eyed suspiciously by the locals for their opposition to the Vietnam War.

But the story is not, or not merely, about such abiding hostilities, or even its more specific conflicts, which are held in exquisite, suggestive suspension. The eleven-year-old boy's parents are "two intimate aliens," with his mother in the midst of an affair; he is also untangling his feelings toward his neighbors' daughters, encompassing friendship and budding eros despite (or because of) the class divide between them. A more conventional storyteller would resolve the tale's tensions and offer large thematic pronouncements—about family, the culture, the '60s. McElroy instead leaves these undertones to vibrate within an exercise in memory, where what matters is not how everything worked out but the way one lived amid simmering mysteries. "This isn't a story maybe," the narrator reflects. "I am finding the words; they, really, me." Experience trumps narrative: The past returns as a fluid, disorienting sequence, whose direction is never predetermined or obvious.

The Dalkey Archive edition of Night Soul claims that its stories have been "collected at last" from a long career (McElroy is now eighty) but regrettably gives no publication information. Still, a couple of the tales are topical in the broadest sense, and they testify to McElroy's continued vigor. "No Man's Land" is unmistakably of the aughts (Google tells me it was published in Fiction in 2008). An unemployed ad writer and sometime poet living in Brooklyn tells of his friendship with a whip-smart nine-year-old named Ali. The boy's uncle is an Arab immigrant trying to prosper in America, even as Ali's recently arrived half brother may well be a jihadist. Such pro- and anti-American allegiances set up the plot's violent denouement, after which the narrative disintegrates into fragments. This sort of fracturing, apt for a story about migration and wandering, reveals more than a correspondence between form and content. McElroy's method is unsettled and voracious: Even in the jagged, mournful close of "No Man's Land," he seeks to exceed his narrative pretexts. Phrases like "Your God as a nomad" (a section in itself) and "Time we break into seasons briefer and briefer now like space where we are restless and think ourselves on the move" would seem more at home in a poem or a philosopher's diary, and their inclusion moves the tale into a realm that is expansive and even haunting—something a more straightforward story couldn't achieve.

Also of our current moment—or yesterday's, at least—is McElroy's take on the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, "The Campaign Trail." An Obama-like candidate spends the night under the stars with his Hillary Clinton–like rival in an undeveloped "forty-by-fifty-mile parcel of land so recently annexed from our neighbor to the north." A brilliantly comic thought experiment, the story responds to a national politics that is ever more personal yet maddeningly opaque: What do such rivals think of each other, beyond their scripted talking points? "Too thin. To be a leader of substance," reflects the Clinton figure about her opponent. "In another country she could almost like him, get accustomed to his face, use him."

In its inventiveness and absurdist touches, "The Campaign Trail" is a characteristic McElroy effort—a stage for the antics of a sure-handed fabulist. But McElroy isn't just playing here. He delves into the American mythos of wilderness and wildness to fashion, not least through a man who menaces the two candidates toward the end, an allegory of "the still frontier-like state of our union." Offbeat, shrewd, unsettling, this is a political short story in the most enduring sense, whose dazzling strangeness will outlast the spinning of news and election cycles. Here and throughout Night Soul, McElroy reminds us that we still come by our freshest news in the dreams of outlandish fiction.

James Gibbons is associate editor at the Library of America and a frequent contributor to Bookforum.

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