“An Ounce of Cure” is the sixth story in Alice Munro’s first short story collection, Dance of the Happy Shades (click here for links to reviews of the other stories in Dance of the Happy Shades).
If Munro was funny in “The Office,” that’s nothing compared to the humor she uses in “An Ounce of Cure.” This story had me laughing out loud in some places, and throughout I was downright giddy with her observations and with her prose. As expected, though, there’s a bite, a serious undercurrent that doesn’t subvert the comedy; rather, it all matches the adult narrator’s amused and bemused reflection on what she thinks of as her first debauch. The humor is a device we often use to cover up our genuine horror.
The first thing this older narrator says to us is that her parents didn’t drink. Sure, every once in a while her father had a beer, but he drank it outside of the house, and her mother never joined him. In their small town, most people lived the same way. Something happened to our narrator, though, at a young age, something that not only alienated her from her friendships, her work, and her community, but also from her own mother. It’s a long sentence that introduces this, but it’s worth quoting in full:
I ought not to say that it was this which got me into difficulties, because the difficulties I got into were a faithful expression of my own incommodious nature — the same nature that caused my mother to look at me, on any occasion which traditionally calls for feelings of pride and maternal accomplishment (my departure for my first formal dance, I mean, or my hellbent preparations for a descent on college) with an expression of brooding and fascinated despair, as if she could not possibly expect, did not ask, that it should go with me as it did with other girls; the dreamed-of spoils of daughters — orchids, nice boys, diamond rings — would be borne home in due course by the daughters of her friends, but not by me; all she could do was hope for a lesser rather than a greater disaster — an elopement, say, with a boy who could never earn his living, rather than an abduction into the White Slave trade.
This “incommodious nature” is showcased in one evening of babysitting for the Berrymans on an April Saturday night. Ever since the previous September she had been tortured by her feelings for Martin Collingwood, a boy who looked at her on day in early September with a surprised expression (“I never knew what surprised him; I was not looking like anybody but me”), kissed her for a few weeks, and then moved on.
She missed him, but her real torture started when she saw him playing Mr. Darcy in the Christmas production of Pride and Prejudice: “the part gave Martin an arrogance and male splendour in my eyes which made it impossible to remember that he was simply a high-school senior, passably good-looking and of medium intelligence.” For the next four months, this fifteen-year-old girl suffered. Her adult self wonders, “Why is it a temptation to refer to this sort of thing lightly, with irony, with amazement even, at finding oneself involved with such preposterous emotions in the unaccountable past?” I think it’s because that past is actually incredibly painful; ironic distance is a kind of balm. This young girls’ emotional attachment to Martin was real torture, and if at first she found some pleasure in it, soon she wanted to be free. She even took some steps toward suicide.
Soon we get to that April night when she babysits for the Berrymans who were off on an evening with friends, an evening they’d initiated with a few drinks in the kitchen, leaving the bottles of whiskey and scotch out on the counter. You can guess what happens. As a teetotaler, I’ve never been drunk, but Munro’s description is one of the most vivid I’ve ever read. This poor girl, who drank hoping for a change in mood, ends up plastered, dangerously so considering the mixture she concocted and the amount she drank.
It’s funny when her friends show up to help her out, brewing coffee, cleaning the house and the narrator up, hoping that by the time the Berrymans get home all will be well. It’s funny as the adult narrator reflects on this experience with a sense of amazement.
When I finished reading the story, I looked around the web to see what others thought. Many of the short pieces I read looked at this story as a kind of transition from innocence to experience. The narrator is growing up, does something dumb, learns her lesson, and is able to move into a brighter future, was the type of phrase I read in several of these pieces, enough to make me think this story must have come up in a classroom discussion or something. But I don’t think this is what this story is about at all.
First, right after this Saturday evening is over, it gets around town that she got drunk at the Berrymans. Not only that, but because she told her mother the whole story, it also somehow gets around that the tried to commit suicide over Martin Collingwood. Her mother, shocked at what her daughter was capable of, threatens to not let her date until she is sixteen or older, but . . .
This did not prove to be a concrete hardship at all, because it was at least that long before anybody asked me. If you think that news of the Berrymans adventure would put me in demand for whatever gambols and orgies were going on in and around that town, you could not be more mistaken.
It’s not a story about learning one’s lesson. There’s something else going on here. This girl was suffering, tried to find some relief, and was severely punished for it. The older narrator cannot help but look back with some amazement:
But the development of events on that Saturday night — that fascinated me; I felt that I had had a glimpse of the shameless, marvellous, shattering absurdity with which the plots of life, though not of fiction, are improvised.
The humor is deliberate; it’s perhaps the only way this narrator can look back on this event. She wonders why we look back on these times with irony, but it’s here.
The narrator seems to have recovered well enough from this event and from the years of ostracism. She marries, has children, and even remains in the same small town. However, for me the story ends ambiguously. Either she’s strong and confident now, or that’s just another shield to protect the scars of growing up.
After years of avoiding Martin Collingwood, who also stayed in the same town, she runs into him at a funeral. As he did on that September years earlier, he looks at her with some surprise, perhaps “by a memory either of my devotion or my little buried catastrophe.”
I gave him a gentle uncomprehending look in return. I am a grown-up woman now; let him unbury his own catastrophes.
“An Ounce of Cure” is important — it represents a road Munro might have taken, instead of the one she did. It made me laugh out loud. It was so funny I read parts of it aloud to my husband.
A fifteen-year-old girl, thrown over by her first boyfriend, finds herself babysitting on the night of the big dance. In a little revolt, she decides to try out the whisky that her employers are so casual and delighted with. Farce ensues, complete with the adult’s dry account of all the dreadful events of the evening, every last one.
This is another of Munro’s girls, tough and sensitive at the same time, trying life on. This time it’s stand-up funny. Written fifty years later, “To Reach Japan” has as its girl the young mother-writer out of her league at a literary cocktail party, and it’s not so funny. The fifties and sixties were hard-drinking times, way before the MADD mothers, and it will be interesting to see what role alcohol plays in the stories in between, especially given that writers have often been forgiven their and their characters’ heavy drinking, but for women writers and women in general, it’s a different story.
It’s obvious, however, that Munro could have had a little following writing funny stuff, and could have never bothered with what finally absorbed her. Being funny would have been a cul-de-sac, though. For one thing, what the girl did that night was so dangerous as to have been a near-death experience, and I’m not so sure Munro makes that clear, or was even aware of that at the time she wrote it — those times being so close to the “Mad Men” era.
But Faulkner can indulge his funny bone in ambiguous and dangerous territory and win the Nobel Prize, so I wonder here about there being different rules for women (something Munro herself appears to question frequently).
Flannery O’Connor is funny; but with O’Connor the humor is in the service of a moral view; the humor is just a piece of a very rich quilt, a manner of making sure evil gets its comeuppance.
That “An Ounce of Cure” does not have O’Connor’s deep purpose suggests that this story must have been one of Munro’s “exercises,” while she was still learning what kind of writer she intended to be.
Women still face terrific challenges trying to sort out a life; watching Munro experiment with what might have been a profitable dead-end is instructive. She spent time on that story, it is drop-dead funny. How easily we go down a path and get diverted. But Munro doesn’t. Just look at “The Peace of Utrecht,” “Walker Brothers Cowboy,” “Boys and Girls,” or “Dance of the Happy Shades.”