Callan Wink: “Breatharians”

Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers).  Callan Wink’s “Breatharians” was originally published in the October 22, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.

Click for a larger image.

I really enjoyed Callan Wink’s The New Yorker debut last year, and am excited to see where this University of Wyoming MFA student (who calls himself a “fly fishing guide in real life”) goes. If this story is any indication, it’s going to get dark.

“Breatharians” is a tightly structured, complex story, impressive for so young a writer. Here’s how it begins:

There were cats in the barn. Litters begetting litters begetting litters — some thin or misshapen with the afflictions of blood too many times remixed.

“Get rid of the damn things,” August’s father said. “The haymow smells like piss. Take a tire iron or a shovel or whatever tool suits you. You’ve been after me for school money? I’ll give you a dollar a tail. You have your jackknife sharp? You take their tails and pound them to a board, and then after a few days we’ll have a settling up. Small tales worth as much as large tails, it’s all the same.”

August goes out to find his tool and dreams of the possibilities: “He could earn fifty dollars at least, maybe seventy-five, possibly even a hundred if he was able to track down the newborn litters.” I found this highly — refreshingly — disturbing. It all made me suitably uncomfortable.

Of course, after killing three cats quickly, the others shy well away from August. He realizes the job is going to be more difficult than he thought. This line of the narrative moves to the background as we learn more about August’s family. His mother tells him he can say no to his father: “That’s the kind of work you stand a chance of bringing home with you, if you know what I mean.” But his mother doesn’t put up that much of a fuss. She’s distanced herself, figuratively and literally. One night, after a fight with his father, she moved back to the old house on the property. His father lives in the new, and staying longer and longer, is the young woman who’s come to work at the farm. There was a time, not too long ago, when things were different. August’s parents lived together in the new house, and August’s dog — given to him as a puppy when August was born – was still alive. Only recently August “realized, for the first time, that all of his life up to this very point existed only in the past, which meant that it didn’t exist at all, not really.”

August’s parents will never get back together. We know this. His father is sleeping with the young girl; more and more she’s moving in. His mom, though she grew up on the farm in that old house, wants more for her son. She is a bit strange, proclaiming early in the story that she has successfully become a breatharian, “an inediate,” “an air eater,” a “sky swallower” or “ether ingestor.” She says, “You can attune your mind and your body, Augie. Perfectly attune them by healthy living and meditation, so that you completely lose the food requirement. [. . .] I’m talking about getting to the point where all you have to do is breathe the air and you’re satisfied.” But none of these characters, other than, perhaps, the cats (who are certainly not breatharians), is satisfied, and each has forces pulling him or her in opposite directions.

There are many threads to follow in this story, not the least of which is the food. These characters, other than the mother, eat often. The dog died because it ingested antifreeze, and just how are so many cats surviving in the barn? And how does this come back around to the family? And then to the cat massacre? Much to consider.

One thing I might mention: before I posted my thoughts on this story, I received a number of emails from people excited about Callan Wink, wondering if I had any way of reaching out to him to tell him they appreciate his work. I don’t and haven’t looked into it. I am happy to know, though, that there are several out there who are excited about this young author and look forward to more of his work.

Not all are fans, though, which is fine, but in this case their reasoning is way off. I notice that others who have posted their thoughts on other blogs are getting a few comments from people horrified that this story features the murder of cats. There is much more to this story and in no way does this story — or its proponents — suggest there is joy to be had in killing innocent animals. What a knee-jerk reaction. What narrow vision. If I and other bloggers are getting emails and comments about how awful this story is, I’m sure Mr. Wink is too. I hope he doesn’t pay their criticisms any heed and continues to put out challenging, disturbing work.

30 thoughts on “Callan Wink: “Breatharians””

  1. Rev Paula says:

    Are you serious? The latest article by Callan Wink details the torture and killing of barn cats; something he obviously likes doing. And you are WAITING for this? You are just as disturbed as Wink. How could you promote this type of cruelty? What is wrong with you?????

  2. Trevor says:

    I’m surprised to see this is the only comment on this post since I’ve gotten a number of emails from new fans of Wink asking if I have contact with him, which I don’t. I just want to throw that out there so others know this story holds more than you got, Rev Paula.

    Why do you think Wink enjoys anything in this story? Can’t an author write about something awful without being called awful? Can’t readers appreciate the work without condoning or promoting the actions in it? Of course. But we can also find offense, as you have, so please explain why this is some reflection on author and readers.

  3. Trevor says:

    I have finally updated the above post to reflect my thoughts on the story. I’m very much a proponent of this story and can’t wait to see more from Mr. Wink.

  4. Rev Paula says:

    Like I said ~ you are just as disturbed and sick as Wink. This article is clearly written by someone who did it themselves ~ and provides a blueprint for other twisted minds. And no, there is no literary “work” here ~ it is merely a sick mind expressing its pleasure at having something that they are proud of, to write about. Again, I stand by my comments ~ you and Wink are both very disturbed people. And, I doubt you will post this but I am saying it anyway.

  5. Roger says:

    I’m not sure what the fuss is about. I read this story out loud to my labrador retriever. First time I’ve seen her get up on her hind legs and do a Snoopy dance!

  6. Roger says:

    Forgive me for that last post! I couldn’t resist. Seriously, I thought this was a terrificly effective, disturbing story. At no point should it enter anyone’s mind that the author condones the killing of the cats. To the contrary, the story concerns the introduction of an adolescent boy to some of the hard facts of the hard life he is beginning to grow up into, which includes his father hiring him to do the gruesome work out in the barn. It is supposed to be awful and disturbing, just as the disintegration of August’s family and the loss of his childhood is awful and disturbing. It reminded me of some of Benjamin Percy’s stories, but I thought it was even better. Great work by Callan Wink.

  7. Rev Paula says:

    Sorry guys ~ I would never kill an animal much less write about it. This is not a rite of passage, this is a sick person. I stand by my opinion; you are all pretty sick to think this article is worthy of print. I have written 7 books so I know what I am talking about. Good luck in the future you 20-somethings; I would never hire you because the bottom line is you think it is ok to torture animals.

  8. Trevor says:

    Paula, of course I’m going to post your comments. Here we can not only handle but we welcome other views. Yours aren’t so much opposing views, though, as completely ignorant ones. I don’t believe you read the story (it is not an article). If you did, if you haven’t learned to separate the subject from the author yet, and if you haven’t learned how to digest and learn from stories about things you don’t condone, there’s little sense in discussing this with people who have.

  9. Rev Paula says:

    The challenge for you guys is that there is never any separation from the author and his work. Period. Wink absolutely tortured cats. Period. And this is like talking to a brick wall where you guys are concerned, and it is really boring, so the dialogue is ended because you are completely pedantic and moot.

  10. Jim says:

    Callan Wink is a client of Peter Steinberg at the Steinberg Agency in NYC

  11. Ken says:

    Pointless discussion aside about the cat killing, I found this tired and the kind of thing I’ve read millions of times. The manly rural detail “tongue-and-ball trailer knobs, Mason jars of rusting bolts” as if this will make it more authentic. The tired similes “the twisted branches like arms raised…” The “colorful” mother and her quirky (condescendingly described in a Coen-Bros. way) religious beliefs and eccentic speech patterns. The boy watching his parent’s marriage dissolve. This is the kind of story that fatigues me and makes me bored with and tired of literature (untill of course I read something good). I came closer to putting this down unfinished then I have in a long time.

  12. Ken says:

    I just re-read what I wrote about Wink’s earlier story-Dog Run Moon-wow, that one I had really enjoyed. I wonder if I’m not in a slightly cranky mood today because the animal who lives across the hall has been noisiliy moving his junk out of the apartment all day and making ungodly noise.

  13. Trevor says:

    Thanks for the heads-up, Jim! I see the issue is dedicated to “betrayal,” and I’m anxious to pick it up.

    Ken, I prefer to think your response is due to your neighbor :) . Not that your criticisms sound off-base, of course, though none of that bothered me. In fact, regarding your first critique — “The manly rural detail ‘tongue-and-ball trailer knobs, Mason jars of rusting bolts’ as if this will make it more authentic” — I felt quite the opposite; often it seems writers put in a lot of unnecessary detail to make it sound real and for no other purpose, but here I felt Wink avoided that and the descpritions sounded very natural. I may be biased, having grown up in rural Idaho.

  14. Madwomanintheattic says:

    There really are “Breatharians,” just as there really are authors who write hauntingly about killing cats. I liked the mother’s comments as she grew increasingly abstract, and I also liked the kinds of really tempting food she cooked to test herself. Best part of this good story for me: August’s conversation with Lisa as he tries to be contrarian and nasty and just can’t win. He just can’t win.

  15. Jim says:

    One insider’s note: The NYer knocked off 1000 words from the original story submitted by Callan. Callan will be putting out a book of short stories, probably sometime in 2014 (maybe late 2013). I will be looking forward to reading the unedited version in this collection.

    I’m wondering if the extra content will change any of my perceptions of the characters.

  16. Aaron says:

    I can’t believe that Rev Paula was being serious in her “critique” of this story. (That or she’s a troll, as evidenced by her theory that a “dialogue” consists of one person railing at everyone else for not sharing her immutable view.)

    So far as Ken goes, I have to side with Trevor here: I’m not a description person by trade, but I buy the authenticity that it leans here, mainly because the lists and metaphors seem relevant. They all filter back into the farm’s life itself; they contribute to the pulse of the fiction. His complaint about the story is more valid — cat-killing aside, there’s nothing unique in a hardening child’s perspective of a fractious marriage and an interloping “new” mother figure — and yet, that complaint could be leveled against so many stories that there’d hardly be any reason left to write at all. What’s here at least reads fresh — though I’ll admit that the inediate stuff seemed a bit tacked on as it’s rarely written about in fiction — and I found plenty to extrude for my own mental satiation.

  17. Ken says:

    What does “inediate” mean?

  18. Aaron says:

    I believe it means “non-eating.” (Inedia is Latin, apparently, for “fasting.”)

    You can find more here at the source I was reading/citing: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inedia

  19. Betsy says:

    Trevor, I really enjoyed your commentary on “Breatharians”. I was glad to hear about Callan Wink’s forthcoming book of short stories, and also about his story to appear in the March issue of “Granta”. In addition, I also very much liked his interview with Cressida Leyshon. He is so articulate about his own story, however, that it’s hard to dive in with one’s own reaction. Nevertheless, I do.

    Right off, I notice that you have to look beyond the peculiarity of the title and focus on the fact that it is in the plural – “Breatharians”. Having never heard of a Breatharian, though, before considering the effects of the plural title, I had to look them up. Talk about a cult; talk about group insanity. These people espouse beliefs that are delusions: they believe that some people can exist on light and air without the need for food or water. Practitioners, however, have methods of sneaking food, and so are frauds who live a life of purposeful duplicity. Some accounts tell of doomed acolytes coming close to death or actually dying. These ideas take snake handling to another dimension, although apparently Breatharians claim that their beliefs have legitimate religious sources.

    So why is the title in the plural? Only one of the characters, August’s mother, espouses breatharianism, while smoking like a chimney, so her own sanity is doubly in question. The plural implicates the other three characters as well: August, his father, and the girl. The title makes us at least consider what kind of Breatharians they might be – i.e., to what degree delusion, duplicity, or even death-seeking is part of the air they breathe.

    As Trevor pointed out, there is a lot of eating in this story, although there seems to be a dearth of satiation. In addition, given the triple poisoning (the dog, the cats, and the land), the story seems also to be indicating that these people are in a way poisoning themselves. When I thought about the cats laced with anti-freeze being spread on the fields, without a second glance, I wondered about the other chemicals we routinely spread among the animals and the earth. August’s father has taken over his wife’s father’s land and built a big house up on the hill. At one point he admonishes his son that barn talk doesn’t belong in the house, as if the barn talk could sully the house. Contrarily, if barn and house talk lived in healthy integration, maybe the fields and animals would be healthy as well.

    Speaking of a dearth of satiation, the boy thinks he can make maybe a hundred dollars on the cats, but in moving from helping with the milking to casual pest control, he has surely lost an intimacy with life, with his father, and with ordinary hard work, while at the same time, Wink pointedly leaves out just exactly what the boy wants the money for, an evasion that leaves us a little uncomfortable, especially because the father shows absolutely no interest, except to point out it has to do with school. Something to do with school. That’s a tightwire! Books? Clothes? Chocolate malts? Drugs?

    The farm girl, a mere 7 years older than August, has sex with the father in the barn, which August witnesses. But what he notices is that she is completely covered with rosacea, as if her whole body were embarrassed with what she has gotten it involved in. Her body is not so much satiated as turned into an unnatural whole body tattoo.

    I agreed with Trevor about liking the catalogue of tools that the boy encounters in the barn, but there is embedded in the forward to the catalogue the words “the tangled intestine of machinery” – as if the living part of the farm were the tools rather than the animals, the crops, or the men and women who tend them.

    What should be the natural flowering of existence – the family – is here a poisoned carcass. A mother tries to guide her son while she is naked under a quilt she has fashioned into a kind of tunic, and her twelve year old son has to listen to her guidance wondering about her nakedness. A man has allowed his somewhat demented wife to move into an out-building, while he simultaneously allows himself to take a girl into the main house who is young enough to be his daughter. No one thinks much about actually guiding or teaching the boy. In fact, the rancher put a puppy into the boy’s crib when he was a boy, like an American Romulus or Remus, as if that was all the suckling he would need. What I really notice, being the age I am, is that there are no grandparents. Families with involved, supportive grandparents do better. So August is growing up on a diet of very thin air.

    The Paul Harvey radio frame serves the story well. The story has no other words of guidance: no books, no libraries, no teachers, no church, no songs, no uncles, no creed on this farm at all. Paul Harvey is entertaining – but when his lone voice is the only philosophy available, then the air is even thinner.

    I do think that the boy being offered the job to rid the barn of cats, unguided, sums up the sadness of the boy’s brutal life. Milk, maternity, and the natural order are an implicit good in this story that have been usurped by an unnatural order: the boy is “suckled”, so to speak, by a dog; as a twelve year old he must collude in what appears to be his mother’s slow death; he must observe his father having sex with the hired girl in the barn; he must see the girl’s entire body turned red, as if it were in rebellion.

    One more comment – the word Breatharian has within it the word Aryan, a most unpleasant word with most unpleasant history. I suspect, however, that the people who thought it up (Breatharian) rather liked it.
    In his interview with Leyshon, Wink noted that he’d been told that he’d have gotten less bad press if he’d written about the killing of babies. Of course, that calls to mind Jonathan Swift, who did write about the killing of babies, to great persuasive effect.

    The understated tone of “Breatharians” is misleading.
    There is in that flat tone the shocking wildness of Flannery O’Connor. I look forward to reading more by Callan Wink.

  20. Trevor says:

    Thanks yet again for another great analysis, Betsy. While I recognized the paucity of healthy relationships, I hadn’t really thought of the reason “Breatharians” is plural, and seems to open the story up a great deal.

  21. John says:

    Clearly Rev Paula doesn’t understand that the use of disquietude is a very common thing when it comes to postmodern stories. Wink was likely just using it to emphasize an underlying theme in the story. Perhaps that August would do anything to impress his father. His father clearly didn’t trust him (seeing as he told his son that he had to nail the tails of the cats to a board in order to prove that he had actually killed them). Also, on a more obvious note, it’s completely ludicrous to say that for an author to write about something in a fictional story, the must’ve experienced it firsthand. Saying this means that you believe that J.K. Rowling went to a magical school and became a wizard, Bram Stoker was trapped in a castle by a vampire, and Dr. Seuss actually met a talking cat who wore a large hat.

  22. Jim says:

    “Breatharians” will be appearing in 2013 Edition of The Best American Short Stories coming out in October, 2013.

  23. Betsy says:

    Jim – so glad to hear that Callan Wink’s story is going to appear in Best American Short Stories! Terrific.

  24. Steven says:

    can someone give me a link to other stories from this marvelous writer besides the ones in TNY

  25. Jim says:

    http://www.granta.com/Archive/122/One-More-Last-Stand
    http://www.mensjournal.com/magazine/fly-fishing-confidential-20131127
    http://www.ecotonejournal.com/index.php/articles/details/off_the_track
    Callan has another story coming out in Summer 2014 Granta, a book of short stories should be out by the end of 2014 from Random House and a novel to follow.

  26. Trevor says:

    Thanks for the links, Jim. Incidentally, I’ve been meaning to thank you for passing on Callan’s fly fishing piece — back in November! (I was under the gun with a lot of stuff then, and I apologize) It’s wonderful!

  27. Jim says:

    You are welcome Trevor! I find the whole writing and publishing industry fascinating, especially when it comes to my son. I know that he has been frustrated that he hasn’t gotten a book out yet. I believe that his editor has been saddled with too many projects and hasn’t been able to work with Callan until recently. And then they have been going back and forth on whether to do the novel first or the short story book first. It sounds like it will be the short story collection first now so that could be pulled together pretty quickly. Callan just sold the film rights to “Breatharians” to a very reputable film company who wants to make a short film based on it (Sorry Rev. Paula!).

  28. Trevor says:

    Callan just sold the film rights to “Breatharians” to a very reputable film company who wants to make a short film based on it (Sorry Rev. Paula!).

    !!

  29. Steven says:

    Thanks

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