Alice Munro: “Thanks for the Ride”

Dance-of-the-Happy-Shades“Thanks for the Ride” is the fourth story in Alice Munro’s first short story collection, Dance of the Happy Shades. For an overview with links to reviews of the other stories in this collection, please click here.

Trevor

“Thanks for the Ride” might, on first examination, seem slight and straightforward. Dickie, our male narrator who is just out of high school, has gone with his mother to a type of health spa. He and his cousin George, bored one day, decide to go explore a small, rundown town they’ve never seen before, their main goal is to find bootleggers and girls. They succeed, and in the end they drive off and should be satisfied. Dickie, though, is not.

What I enjoyed so much about this story is the fact that, though we are treated to one of Munro’s rare male narrators, we get a very opaque look at a strong girl, and we fear for her even as we realize just how strong she is.

Stepping back, I think it’s important to look at how Munro introduces this rundown town. It is remarkably different from anything the relatively wealthy Dickie is used to. It is filled with silent pain.

You see that judgment on the faces of people looking out of windows, sitting on front steps in some little towns; so deeply, deeply uncaring they are, as if they had sources of disillusionment which they would keep, with some satisfaction, in the dark.

It’s almost a fallen world in comparison with the paradise that Dickie and George are apparently used to.

Obviously not exactly what they’re looking for, as George says when he finds his date Adelaide: “This’ll do in a pinch.” George asks Adelaide if she has a friend for Dickie. They run into Lois. As fortune would have it, Lois is free for the night because her boyfriend is spending time with his fiancée. Before she goes with him, though, she’d like to go home and change.

For me, this is where the story becomes strong and mysterious. While waiting for Lois to get dressed, Dickie has a strange conversation with her widowed mother (her father was killed in an accident — his head came clean off). Lois’s mother seems not-quite-there as she talks to Dickie, whom she obviously envies, even as she denies having any such attachment to possessions. Lois comes out in her best dress.

Assuming himself to be in control, to be the one who can take, Dickie is surprised to find something he cannot comprehend in Lois. He wants access to it more than he wants access to her body.

I put my arm around her, not much wanting to. I was wondering what was the matter. This girl lay against my arm, scornful, acquiescent, angry, inarticulate and out-of-reach. I wanted to talk to her then more than to touch her, and that was out of the question; talk was not so little a thing to her as touching.

As the story comes to a close, we realize that Lois has been in control of Dickie, which is not to say she’s in control of her life. There’s pain and power, and she finds at outlet to each, Dickie shocked in the end when she says, “Thanks for the Ride.” Yet she remains the one without power as Dickie drives off to his better life.

The smell, the slovenly, confiding voice — something about this life I had not known, something about these people. I thought: my mother, George’s mother, they are innocent. Even George, George is innocent. But these others are born sly and sad and knowing.

Betsy

I would like to say here that I write as merely an engaged reader who is trying to think clearly about Munro, not as any kind of expert. But isn’t that the way most of us read? Isn’t that the reader Munro hoped to have? Certainly our scholars guide us, but given work and family, most of us make do with reading primarily on our own, with only occasional opportunities to read scholarship. In fact, given the human drive for autonomy, we really enjoy, if truth be told, trying to make sense, initially, on our own. And if the writer we are reading is rich, many of us enjoy the challenge, the conversation, of writing about what we’ve read, given that writing is a frame that forces clarity and thoughtfulness.

Scholarship can be helpful, but most of the time the reader must make the best of their own mind. And, given the recent decades of literary scholarship being hi-jacked by people who make an art of obfuscation, sometimes it is hard to know where to turn for scholarship that is not a waste of time. Hence the wonderful proliferation of the book club – virtual or in person – for the clarification conversation gives. And I enjoy making of an author my temporary Virgil – someone who can be a guide, for a while, through the vale of life. Munro’s immense collection makes her a wonderful choice for just that. She is someone who has offered a lifetime of saying how she sees life. As a woman, I am particularly interested in her point of view.

“Thanks for the Ride,” a very early story of Munro’s, is one which she may have later considered practice or experiment. But I like its subject, its ambition, and its dense, concise, affecting complexity – complexity involving death and birth, wealth and poverty, power plays, loss and acquisition, sadness and anger, yearning and revenge. That’s a lot for a short story to manage, and I thought she managed it. Shakespeare manages that kind of condensation, and I think Munro aims at that. I liked, in particular, the respect which Munro affords the unacceptable girl: her speechlessness, her sexuality, her anger, her grief, her wild drive.

Having an eighteen-year-old male narrator presents both opportunity and challenge. What works well is how we see Lois through the boy’s confused, slowly awakening perspective. The challenge is for us to believe in him (given that Munro is a woman). I think it works (although only a man could say for sure) because it is a man speaking of himself in the past tense, and therefore, we are not in a stream of consciousness; we are privy to only what he chooses to tell us, and his is a reserved voice, and he clearly chooses to tell us only an outline, and that outline has a ring of truth.

Does Munro get away with the boy thinking about the Latin “ Omne animal trist est”?  Yes, I think so. First, we disrespect the fifties if we don’t accept the rigor of the four or more years of Latin study often done in high school at that time. As always, the boys would have lightened the task by learning anything off-color as soon as possible, and the older boys would have gone for what they thought of as the sophisticated phrases, even before the internet. Second, the phrase appears to have a confused history, and is appropriate to the boy’s confused state. So I think she does get away with it, and in fact, the Latin phrase is important to the story because it points to the way we have to “translate” life into words, and succeed or fail half the time. So the narrator reads true to me, although there is much more could be said about that.

As for the story:

Late one summer, a couple of randy adolescent boys roll across the tracks so that the older can procure some fun for himself and some first real sex for the younger one. They pick up two girls they’ve never seen before and never intend to see again. But in the sexual encounter which is the pivot of “Thanks for the Ride,” Munro turns the tables. The boy who thinks he holds all the cards turns out to be holding fewer than he thought. The girl he is using, it turns out, is using him, and the girl who has nothing, it turns out, has instead a riveting power. It’s not that she awakens him to her beauty or her goodness; it’s that she awakens him to her (wild) force and all its possibilities. He understands he has happened against something he cannot contain or keep, except, perhaps, to tell it, or write about it. But of course, Munro says this all far more obliquely than that.

Lois is a sixteen-year-old girl who lives in a house with a couch on the porch and a privy out back. She’s quit school after her father died at the mill, and she is left with a grandmother like a “collapsed pudding” and a mother who has a “slovenly, confiding voice.” Lois is free for a pick-up because her “boyfriend,” who is engaged, is busy with his fiancée.

Lois dresses to the nines for the double date, even though she knows their likely destination: the farmhouse where the widow will sell them a little moonshine and then give them the use of her front room. What is so shocking is the way we, along with Dickie, slowly realize that Lois is the one doing the using. Lois is “cold and narrow and pale” as well as “scornful, acquiescent, inarticulate and out-of-reach,” not to mention that she manages to do things in a “mannerly and subtly contemptuous way.”

Just before her assignation in a barn, she smooths out her shiny dress – her good dress. “’I wanted to show you guys!’ she said with a sudden small explosion of viciousness.” And the boy who is telling the story realizes: “The drunken, nose-thumbing, toe-twirling satisfaction could now not be mistaken . . .” So he makes vicious fun of her in return, but she takes him on: she slaps him. Which leads, almost inevitably, to sex, which reveals to him that:

There are some people who can go only a little way with the act of love, and some others who can go very far, who can make a greater surrender, like the mystics.

Lois was one of those. But when she was done, she was done, and “utterly closed up in herself.” Dickie finds himself completely undone. There are things he wants to say, but cannot. Dickie thinks he wants to tell the girl a Latin saying he’s “read somewhere” about all animals being sad after sex. Perhaps he wants to re-establish his position. But he doesn’t, because in her presence he is now utterly tongue-tied. He thinks she would understand. It is possible that she would indeed understand it, given that once sex is done, Lois has back, once again, the very real sadness of her life.

To the end Dickie and George act the boor, leaving the girls at the corner to walk themselves home. Ironically, speechless Lois has the last word. “Thanks for the ride,” she yells. Not tongue-tied now, she.

Lois is another version of Munro’s wildly self-possessed, contradictory, self-preserving, and at times, self-destructive girls. In this case, an angry, inarticulate girl uses sex as a language for her anger, and uses it, too, to enjoy herself. By referring to her sexuality as that of “a mystic” Munro makes clear that it is not the sex itself that is troubling. It’s that Lois has so many strikes against her (having dropped out of school, for one) that perhaps she cannot afford the indulgence that Dickie and George can afford, or that a girl with more means could survive.

Munro forces the issue upon the reader – what will become of Lois? It’s unclear, really, with her determination to seize life, earn money and look good, whether she will become a kind of a star or a kind of a mess. Or just a prostitute.

A central metaphor in the story is her father’s beheading at the mill; it suggests the inevitability of both accident and carelessness, and it bores down on class inequity. But the beheading also links to the wrong-headed pick-up, the head in the sand hope that Lois has in clothes, the several wrong-headed attempts at communication that Dickie makes, and the headlong sex.

But the sex is important. Dickie thinks of the sex as that “headlong journey,” meaning, of course, the delicious speeding up. But the reader understands the oddly worded “headlong journey” also as a kind of birth. Mothers, motherhood, and escape from mothers play a role in this story, too, and there is the suggestion that sex is the necessary second birth. What matters here is the sense of Dickie being born into something: a consciousness – one that Lois has birthed him, headlong, into.

But as for Lois, is there any revelation for her?

Say Lois loved her father; say he might have been a wonderful force in her life; say he died in a terrible accident at the mill; say she was only thirteen at the time; say it was so horrible her mother cannot stop talking about it. What does a thirteen-year-old girl do with such loss? How do you comfort such a loss?

Her mother says, “Everybody in town just stripped their gardens . . . I guess it was the worst accident ever took place in this town.”

But if you’re thirteen, it may be difficult to make sense or solace of the losses: the shock, the abandonment, the anger, the poverty, and the loneliness. It may be almost impossible to find comfort or find words for so much anger and loss. Solace is scarce. So if, as Dickie says, what one feels after sex is sadness, sex makes sense for Lois, being both a solace and a language for the sadness. That it’s also a language for anger only helps. One must not perish; one must make sense of things, one must have comfort – money, clothes, a fur for winter – as well as the acting out.  She’s only sixteen. What does she know where it all may lead? Or perhaps she does know, saying as she does, with revenge, “Thanks for the ride.”

Or perhaps not: as Pop has posted on the diner wall: “Don’t ask for information. If we knew anything we wouldn’t be here.” Either/Or/Both at the same time.

I like this story immensely. I like Lois’s ferocity, her force, and the mystery of whether she will perish or survive.

4 thoughts on “Alice Munro: “Thanks for the Ride””

  1. horst says:

    I like this enlightening interpretation a lot . It encourages me to read more of Munroe’s stories. Besides, your commentary in various respects reflects my own impressions.
    There is more to the story than one may realize at first glance.
    Thank you!
    Horst

  2. Betsy says:

    Nice to hear from you, Horst. Yes, just as you say, there is always more to the story than at first glance. She’s rich. she leaves room for the reader to have a lot of reactions.

  3. Dolors Udina says:

    Great, this interpretation! I just finished translating this story into Catalan, with mixed feelings, not quite catching all the meanings it had. Reading your post was clarifying for me. Thank you! Alice Munro needs good readers! Her stories enclose many hidden things.

  4. Betsy Pelz says:

    Welcome, Dolors. So glad to have you with us.

    We have had some discussions here about the delicacy that translation requires. It would be so interesting to know what special problems this story presents for the translator, especially the translation into Catalan.

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