"Birnam Wood" by T. Coraghessan Boyle Originally published in the September 3, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.
Another story you can read for free online, from another well known short story writer. Though I’m not always keen on Boyle’s work (more on that at the end), I did enjoy this story.
It’s the 1970s and the story begins one cold September. Our narrator and his girlfriend, Nora, spent the summer season in a shack (“Back in May, when Nora was at school out West and I sent her a steady stream of wheedling letters begging her to come back to me, I’d described the place as a cottage.”). As the pleasant summer passes into a harsh September, the shack becomes unlivable. They have very little money: “enough, we hoped, to get us out of the converted chicken coop and into someplace with heat and electricity till we could think what to do next.” What to do next? It’s an awful situation. The narrator feels he should be the provider, so even though Nora laughs when they visit a tiny, dirty apartment, he doesn’t think it’s so funny. He knows he might just have to move there, and then what?
Good news comes when the narrator’s best friend comes across a housesitting job. It’s at a place called Birnam Wood and sits on a private lake. It’s more lavish than anything they could ever have expected, and right when they saw it their ill will towards each other almost vanished:
A moment ago, I’d been worked up, hating her, hating the broken-down car with its bald tires and rusted-out panels that was the only thing we could afford, hating the trees and the rain, hating nature and rich people and the private lakes you couldn’t find unless you were rich yourself, unless you had a helicopter, or a whole fleet of them, and now suddenly a different mix of emotions was surging through me — surprise, yes, awe even, but a kind of desperation, too. [. . .] I knew that I had to live here or die [. . .].
Introducing Nora as his wife, the narrator and Nora successfully woo the older couple who will be moving away for the winter, trusting their home to these two young strangers. For a while, the question of what to do next doesn’t matter. They settle into a pleasant routine, both working, though still not earning much. But even at Birnam Wood trouble can enter their relationship.
It’s a finely written story and a nice read. My problem with it is one I often have with Boyle: it seems a bit on the nose, and, contrary to last week’s story by Alice Munro, here “what happens” seems more important than “what it signifies” (a conception of the short story that I picked up from May on the Short Story). Yes, when the end comes we move away from the action and are left to think about what it signifies, but the progress of the story to that point is quite “plotty,” which is not a bad thing, just not necessarily what I think of when I think of a strong short story.
I should say, though, that I still enjoyed this story, and it does leave us with some things to think about. Had we not read Alice Munro last week, I probably wouldn’t be contrasting this one as harshly. I know many readers here really enjoy Boyle, so as well as your thoughts on this story, I’d like to hear your thoughts on Boyle vis-a-vis Munro.