“The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979” is the third story in Karen Russell’s second short story collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove. For an overview with links to review of the others stories in this collection, please click here.
This story was originally published in Tin House (as “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach”; I have no idea what the addition of “1979” adds). It was then anthologized in Best American Short Stories 2010. I have to say, though, I thought it was one of the worst short stories I’ve read in a very long time. I read it twice to see if I could manage to get anything extra the second time through, but that didn’t happen. I found the central narrative limp, Russell’s attempts to get us to sympathize with her protagonist cloying, and the exploration of themes slight and forced. I do want to say here that I have read the next story in the collection, “Proving Up,” and I thought it was remarkable, so I don’t think my distaste here is part of a more general lash-out against Russell.
Nal is the fourteen-year-old protagonist. He’s smart and angry. Things have gotten bad since his mother lost her job at a kind of high-rise nursing home (named Paradise). To keep the residents safe, all of the windows are locked. One day a resident is found smoking out one of the windows, practically hanging out. The management needs a scapegoat, claims that it was always Nal’s mother’s job to make sure every window was locked, and sacks her. Once active and responsible, now the mom lies on the couch and tells Nal, “You can do whatever you want.”
But Nal cannot do what he really wants. For example, he wants a scholarship, something guaranteed if he completes four summer courses. Now they cannot afford the fee, so he must give that up.
Nal also wants to be with Vanessa Grigalunas. He’s been watching her from afar for a long time. But this lousy summer Vanessa has actually started dating Nal’s older brother Samson. To increase the torture, Nal, a virgin, goes out with his brother and Vanessa only to have to look away while they have sex; he can still hear them fine. The pressure and hatred build.
For three days, Nal hadn’t ingested anything besides black coffee and a pint a freezer-burned ice cream. Weight was tumbling from his body. Nal was living on liquid hatred now.
“Hey, Nal,” said Samson, barging through the door. “Listen, Vanessa and I were sort of hoping we could spend the night here? She lied and told Mrs. Griga-looney that she’s crashing at a friend’s spot. Cool? Although you should really pick up before she gets here, this place is gross.”
Oh yes, there are the seagulls from the title that have amassed on the town early in the summer, and no one can explain why. For three-quarters of the story, they don’t do much other than sit ominously. Periodically, Russell has Nal look at the seagulls with some curiosity and suspicion, though we’re forgiven if we forget about them each time they drift into the background while Nal’s mundane, predictable drama unfolds.
I kept hoping the seagulls would elevate this story, if they should ever get a chance to come into the foreground. However, when they finally do, they are no more than a fairly clumsy device to examine “fate.” Nal find a nest the gulls have made and in which they are putting all kinds of objects from people’s lives, including things that appear to be from the future. It’s there Nal finds a window screw, possibly the very screw that would have locked the window at the residency, the screw on which mom’s fate turned. Also in this nest is Nal’s ticket to his summer course, giving Nal an opportunity to take his future into his own hands.
How did the gulls get this stuff? It doesn’t matter, of course. One of Russell’s strengths is injecting such supernatural elements into her stories as if they were the most natural of things in order examine more personal themes. It didn’t work for me this time, though. As a device to make Nal take over his fate, the time traveling seagulls felt weak, contrived, and hardly insightful. They are a gimmick meant to direct our focus to the seemingly small objects that, in or out of place, can affect our futures, but it’s not enough to bring anything to this boring, conventional, false story.