"He Knew" by Donald Antrim Originally published in the May 9, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.
Donald Antrim was named by The New Yorker in the magazine’s original top 20 young writers in America, in a massive fiction issue published June 21, 1991. Despite that, I’ve only read a couple of his pieces published in The New Yorker over the past five or so years. I have not read, nor have I heard much about, any of his novels. If “He Knew” is any gauge on his work, I’d say I’m missing out.
“He Knew” is based on a fairly simple premise. It’s Halloween, and an older man named Stephen and his much younger wife Alice are wandering around the shopping area along Central Park East in Manhattan. He’s an actor, between jobs, and she’s, well, she’s “also between things.” But the way they hide from the truth is by constantly saying they are living their lives to the fullest. The shopping, and who knows how long they can afford this, is all part of it.
When he felt good, or even vaguely a little bit good, and sometimes even when he was not, by psychiatric standards, well at all, but nonetheless had a notion that might soon be coming out of the Dread, as he called it, he insisted on taking Alice to Bergdorf Goodman, and afterward for a walk along Fifty-seventh Street, to Madison, where they would turn — this had become a tradition — and work their way north through the East Sixties and Seventies, into the low Eighties, touring the expensive shops. He was an occasional clothes-horse himself, of course, at times when he was not housebound in a bathrobe.
Other than being Halloween, this particular night, though they enact it as a special occasion — or “tradition” — is really nothing other than a momentary escape from what is obviously a completely unfulfilling existence in their apartment. They rely on each other for their own sense of esteem. Though over the years they’ve frequently brought up a trip they’re going to take to their heritage (both are from the South, though he left before she was born), they will never take this trip. They have no connections to that place anymore, no relatives. But at the same time, the only thing they have in New York is each other, and even there it’s not much. There’s some tenderness and affection, and they try hard to believe the words they say, but it’s all tinged with mistrust and a sense the other person doesn’t want to be there. It comes out in little snaps of temper, though it is quickly covered up:
But she simply apologized for letting her anxiety get the better of her. She said that she was also sorry for provoking him, in the restaurant, with her fear that he might yell at her if he didn’t eat properly. She hadn’t meant to shame him. She loved him. She wanted them to have a fantastic time out in the world. That was all that mattered.
I was also very impressed with the overall thematic development in this story. The elements are nicely controlled — the costumes, the non-existent family, the sleep, the imminent vacation down South. It was a very pleasant read. I’m looking forward to any thoughts, as I think there is quite a bit here — for example, what to make of the title?