“The Flats Road” is the first piece in Alice Munro’s second book, Lives of Girls and Women (click here for links to reviews of the other pieces in Lives of Girls and Women).
Since the last time we wrote about Alice Munro, I’ve seen quite a backlash. Christian Lorentzen seemed to break a dam when he published “Poor Rose,” a takedown of Munro’s entire oeuvre, in the London Review of Books (here). After that, I read hundreds of tweets from people saying they agreed with Lorentzen, Munro is boring, it’s all the same. I just can’t help but think these people have never really given Munro a chance. Lorentzen did, of course — he read almost all of her books — but he apparently read them all over the course of a few weeks, and it seems clear that when he did so he left all good will aside from the beginning.
Oh well. For me, it’s a wonderful thing to go back to Munro’s world, and “The Flats Road” does just that.
The world of “The Flats Road” is a world we are familiar with. It’s the world of Del Jordan, a protagonist in a few of Munro’s first short stories, who lives just on the outskirts of Jubilee with her family: her father, who raises silver foxes, a business with “some glamorous and ghostly, never realized, hope of fortune”; her mother, who is ashamed of their situation in life and corrects Del whenever Del says they live on the Flats Road — “she said we lived at the end of the Flats Road; and her little brother Owen, who hasn’t quite become aware of the larger world. Then again, Del herself is still in the early stages of awareness, and this story is, in large part, about her first experiences understanding danger and isolation, even at her home.
The Flats Road is neither in the town nor in the country. It’s a kind of limbo between established zones and the established lives found there.
Houses here were set further apart and looked in general more neglected, poor, and eccentric than town houses would ever be; half a wall would be painted and the job abandoned, the ladder left up; scars of a porch torn away were left uncovered, and a front door without steps, three feet off the ground; windows could be spread with yellowed newspapers in place of blinds.
People who live on the Flats Road tend to find themselves there because they belong no where else. One of the eccentrics is the man the Jordan family calls Uncle Benny, though he is no one’s uncle. He spends a lot of time fishing, and Del and Owen like to catch frogs for his bait. He’s a strange person, and the reader is justified, I think, in being concerned for Del and Owen. Uncle Benny is harmless, sure, but he seems he could quickly veer and become a source of danger.
The whole of the Flats Road seems it is just about dangerous. At the same time, the perception of danger is a new one for Del, and what she’s beginning to contemplate as dangerous are really just the eccentricities of people she’s discovering are different. At any rate, any sense of danger — mixed still with excitement (Del loves to read Uncle Benny’s lurid tabloids) — dissipates when Del gets to her house.
Why was it that the plain back wall of home, the pale chipped brick, the cement platform outside the kitchen door, washtubs hanging on nails, the pump, the lilac bush with brown-spotted leaves, should make it seem doubtful that a woman would really send her husband’s torso, wrapped in Christmas paper, by mail to his girlfriend in South Carolina?
Introduced early on, also, is the theme of story-telling. A man on the Flats Road married a widow, and the ghost of her dead husband haunted them, finally driving them to leave. But the ghost followed. The man returned to the Flats Road without his new wife. It’s a story, and the characters rightly doubt its veracity. But what was the underlying purpose of the story? Was it just for fun? Or was it something even more sinister?
These themes come together when Uncle Benny responds to a personal ad:
Lady with one child desires housekeeping position for man in quiet country home. Fond of farm life. Matrimony if suited.
The latter part of the story deals with the terrible situation in which Uncle Benny finds himself, a situation with genuine danger that inspires the characters to momentary energy to do something to correct a wrong. Of course, as these things often go, it’s easier to sit back. As time passes, the mind normalizes and fictionalizes the past. We cannot be sure the danger was real, and that’s a great comfort.
But one cannot not so easily wash away all of the effects. Some doubt remains, some sense that the danger was real and goes on. The world is truly not safe, and, sadly, for Del this new awareness penetrates her own home. She lies in bed one night while her parents play cards downstairs in the kitchen:
And upstairs seemed miles above them, dark and full of the noise of the wind. Up there you discovered what you never remembered down in the kitchen — that we were in a house as small and shut up as any boat is on the sea, in the middle of a tide of howling weather.
In “The Flats Road,” Del looks back to a period of almost a year in her childhood; she is about nine, the war has already started, and a story unfolds that revolves around the colorful hired man, Uncle Benny. At the same time, though, the story seems to be about story-telling, especially how to tell if a story’s true, and maybe how to tell if what you hear is true or evil or merely entertaining.
The story is so alive, strange, complex, and rich that it is difficult to reduce to a take: say one thing, and you’ve left some other thing aside. Munro mixes complexity into almost every paragraph. But — no way in but in.
The Flats Road, where Del’s father has his nine-acre fox farm, is a tumbledown and shabby neighborhood, the kind of place where a house might have “a front door without steps, three feet off the ground, windows could be spread with yellowed newspapers in place of blinds.”
There appear to be no children to play with, and so this particular summer Del and her brother Owen hang around with Uncle Benny, who lives in a wreck of a house next door that is gladdened by no end of coons and squirrels that he feeds, and a few wild animals that he keeps in cages — a ferret, a few minks, and a red fox. Uncle Benny likes to fish, and the kids like to kill frogs for him to use as bait. They get a charge out of his house, where there is no end of junk hoarded helter-skelter, and they get a charge out of Uncle Benny himself, who has vivid stories. He tells them not to go into the swamp, because “there was a quicksand hole in there that would take down a two-ton truck like a bite of breakfast.”
Del remarks in an aside: “(In my mind I saw [the quicksand] shining, with a dry-liquid roll — I had it mixed up with quicksilver.)” In fact, what Del is suggesting is that life is like quicksilver, first one thing, then another, and hard to read.
The story concerns itself with danger, and whether or not you can tell what’s dangerous, and whether or not you can sense what evil is. The story is set against the time period when World War II has just begun. Del is only nine, so that is the only mention of the war, but it seems important, given that some of the English and also the Americans took their time understanding whether Hitler was actually evil or not.
Del looks forward to the tabloids that Benny gets, something she knows better than to talk about at home. After greedily reading as much as she could, she’d feel “bloated and giddy with revelations of evil, of its versatility and grand invention and horrific playfulness.” This is not the only time she mentions evil.
There’s a house on the Flats Road where an old bootlegger lives with his wife, a woman who used be a whore for the madam on the Flats Road, a fact Del did not know until later, but a fact which might have bearing on the way the woman could be seen “wandering out to the mailbox, any hour of the day, in a tattered housecoat barefoot.” Del remarks, “Their whole house seemed to embody so much that was evil and mysterious that I would never look at it directly, and walked by with my face set stiffly ahead, controlling my urge to run.” Later in the story, the reader has to wonder if looking directly at evil is as difficult as looking directly at the sun, but regardless, you know it by the feel.
As it happens, Uncle Benny gets it in his head to take a combination mail-order wife-housekeeper, but when she arrives, it appears she is hardly seventeen, the mother of a toddler, and as Del’s mother senses, “mentally deranged.” The girl, whose name is Madeleine, seems, in fact, crazy. Once, when Del is at Benny’s house, the girl picks up a cast iron pot lid, and Del knows it when she sees it: the girl would as soon hit her with it as not, depending on nothing more than a whim. Del doesn’t call her evil, but she knows she’s dangerous, and Del high-tails it out of there.
The story hinges on the moment when the girl disappears with the toddler and some of Benny’s things. Benny, it turns out, has become attached to the little girl. It dawns on Del’s mother that Madeleine has been beating the little girl, probably for no reason at all. It dawns on the reader that Benny knows this, but has fallen in love with the little girl, and doesn’t want to lose her. He chuckles as Del’s mother guesses at the reason for the toddler’s bruises. It is his nervous chuckling that gives away what he has been hiding.
Del’s mother wants to call the police; her father is realistic and cautions her about interfering. So, for a while nothing is done.
Then, suddenly, a letter arrives from the girl, demanding that Benny return a few of her things. Benny tells Del’s parents stories about the sadistic manner in which the young woman tortured the child. Benny sets off in Del’s father’s truck, and everyone expects him to return with the little girl. The city overwhelms him, however, and he returns defeated.
Del hears no one else offer to rescue the child. When she later talks about the deep quiet connection between her parents that is her buffer against the world, the reader has to know that they have discussed the baby, and decided they can do nothing. And that is how families deal, how they survive. They don’t take on so much that their own family topples as well. Being a saint is as hard as being an artist, and Munro well knows the price you can pay for being an artist. It’s not a hard leap to guess at the price for being a saint.
Later, Del says, when they talk about Madeleine, their stories make them laugh, echoing the way Benny chuckled when Del’s mother realized the little girl had been beaten.
This is a complicated story about evil, sensing the truth, and telling stories about it. Although Del remembers feeling safe in her snug little family, this is also the father that didn’t go with Benny to Toronto to rescue the little girl; this is also the mother who would later laugh about the young mother who was evil.
Munro has had Del be a little funny about how she told the story, and now the reader is also complicit, as if evil is something none of us can bear to see, like Del looking at the bootlegger’s house, as if evil is something we are always tempted to make into an entertainment. Even when we see it, sometimes we don’t.
“The Flats Road” is entertaining. It has, once again, our appealing, independent, androgynous girl; it has the family before the fall that adolescence ensures; it has the animals and the river; it has a scary house down the way, the one we all remember from childhood; and it has colorful Uncle Benny to be a guide to the underworld even children know exists.
One of the truths of childhood is the way children sniff danger, the way they process evil. On the one hand, there is Madeleine, a deranged Hitler-mother. On the other, though, we have Benny, who is incapable of redressing evil. Then we have Del’s family and ourselves (quite like them), who know evil when we see it, but let ourselves be persuaded to not get involved. We tell ourselves, maybe it’s only a story Benny told, and you know Benny. Maybe what we thought we understood is not really true. And anyway, what we sense maybe impossible to act upon.
At the same time, Munro is suggesting that the art of story-telling also has within it the risk of evil: that the story you tell may not be true. As a guard against that evil, of not seeing the world true, so she labors to create a whole world in one story, detailed, layered (her word), alive, and resonant. And so you have a place where Benny loves a small child, and is the only love she knows, but cannot save her.
In the epilogue to Lives of Girls and Women, Del writes that she wanted her writing to be:
. . . every last thing, every layer of speech and thought, stroke of light on bark or walls, every smell, pothole, pain, crack, delusion, held still and held together — radiant, everlasting.
And so, this story also has in it, along with all its delusions and hard truths, Del’s radiant hymn to her parents — that memory of a moment — of being tucked in upstairs, of feeling safe within her parents’ connection, the way the little family was a snug boat upon a sea.
And we all remember that brief time as well, and treasure it, moments before the child breaks upon the shoals of adolescence, or some other rock or hard truth.
To get us to read the story, Munro makes mystery; to achieve her layers, there are hints; to persuade us of its life, there are Hopper-like portraits of people and things; and there is mythmaking, as with the swamp and Uncle Benny; and to get every last thing . . . held still and held together, there is art.