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Jeffrey Eugenides: “Find the Bad Guy”

Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Jeffrey Eugenides’s “Find the Bad Guy” was originally published in the November 18, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.

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Trevor

I consider myself a big fan of Jeffrey Eugenides, though most of that is on the strength of his first novel The Virgin Suicides (my review here). Since then, I’ve really liked his work and always find his voice compelling, though I’ve never quite liked anything as much as that first novel.

In “Find the Bad Guy” we again get a compelling, convincing voice, that of Charlie D., a country music radio station consultant who lives in Houston, Texas. When the story begins, he’s standing in the foliage outside his house — about sixty feet, to be exact — ruminating on the unique smells homes have, wondering what his family’s smell is after twelve years living here.

It’s dark outside, and he’s looking at the windows, thinking of what his three kids must be doing inside. It doesn’t take us long to figure out, and Eugenides doesn’t hide it from us, that Charlie D. shouldn’t be there. Indeed, his wife, Johanna (his wife of twenty-one years), has recently been granted a temporary restraining order. Charlie D. is pushing his luck on this February evening.

Charlie D. seems like a friendly enough person. He’s filled with that down-to-earth charm. Even as he tells us (I’m not sure who he’s telling this story to) about the TRO, he calls his wife “lovely,” and he longs for his daughter Meg to play the next round in their game of Words with Friends. He tells us about a few of his outbursts, and says, as if he’s some Disney narrator:

Yessir. Plenty of ammunition for Johanna to play Find the Bad Guy at couples counseling.

As he stands in his yard, he introspects (as he might say), and wonders how this happened to him. He acts like he himself is playing Find the Bad Guy — or, as he explains, the sad game couples play when they argue to win. He wonders, in fact, if he is evil, if people who are evil even know it. Certainly he didn’t see anything coming, and he just wants to be a family again.

This particular family started when he met Johanna nearly a quarter century earlier. She was an immigrant from Germany, and indeed their marriage began as a green card marriage. Soon, though, the charade gave way to something genuine, and they started a family.

Now, Charlie D. gets upset when Johanna tells people that’s how they met. He feels she’s threatening his attachment bond (at least, he realizes he feels that way after counseling). And perhaps he should feel threatened. He’s alienated Johanna.

And this is where, for me, the story gets interesting: he’s alienated himself, and it’s a kind of alienation many of us might find familiar. Charlie D. is actually from Michigan, but here he is in Houston, Texas, and by all accounts he walks the walk and talks the talk. He’s adopted the accent and through the story many political views that may be considered quintessentially Texan pop out as actual  threads in his fabric of being.

It’s a story about deception. Our first glimpse is the green card marriage. But it’s filled to the brim with deceptions. In fact, at one point, we’re maybe not sure if Charlie D. has been deceived by someone or if he’s deceiving himself.

And the deceptions are both conscious and subconscious. For example, it’s convenient for Charlie D. when he realizes that, shoot, his TRO says fifty yards not fifty feet. Oh yeah! So he’s already breaking it. Why not break it some more?

It’s not necessarily a stellar story, in my book, but it’s well executed and I think there’s a lot to dig up.

I also would like to mention that, if you have access to the mobile app of The New Yorker, you should listen to Jeffrey Eugenides read this story out loud: a man from Michigan reading in a Texan accent. It’s a great performance.

Betsy

I’m a fan of Jeffrey Eugenides, too.  I like “Find the Bad Guy” a lot. Charlie’s voice is so human: funny, calculating, self-pitying, inquiring, sad, angry, deluded by turns, but lyric, too. What also works is Charlie begins to get what really matters at just about the same time he is hitting bottom. Which is to say – in the nick of time. And that provides the tension.

Charlie’s a good old boy, but he’s not a good guy: he’s a workaholic; he drinks way too much; he’s capable of hitting the dog when he mad; and he’s never wrong, or if he’s wrong, somebody’s gotta pay. Husband and father of two, he has worked himself into such a self-pitying froth that he spends all of his time alone in front of – the fire-pit. But it could just as well be the TV or the internet or his motorcycle. In Charlie’s case, it’s “the fire-pit.” His wife has become “the bad guy.”

His life, however, has deteriorated to the point that he has had an affair, right in the house, with the under-age baby sitter. His deterioration includes having no idea how what he does makes his wife and kids feel.

But he does have a lyric capacity for occasional insight that just might possibly save him. Read it: you be the judge.

What really interests me is how the story uses the ideas of John Gottman and Sue Johnson, the modern missionaries for marriage. Charlie says that science says it’s “doing little kindnesses for each other” that has been shown to be the greatest glue in marriage. Very Zen, really. But it’s John Gottman’s science and Sue Johnson’s “translation,” so to speak.

Gottman and Johnson’s books and web sites are easily googled by the title of the book that Charlie’s marriage counselor gives him. In contrast to the Okparanta story that “models” Munro but gives no credit, this story is inspired by specific writers but still manages to indicate the sources (without footnotes) to the reader. This story uses other writers, but there’s no stealing.

Three of Johnson’s ideas play a part in Charlie’s moral evolution: Find the Bad Guy, Demon Dialogues, and the Protest Polka. Charlie explains that in a marriage, there cannot be a bad guy; marriages die when somebody insists on a bad guy. Charlie demonstrates the demon dialogue when he cracks “Achtung” at his German born wife asks him to take out the trash. And he talks about the Protest Polka: that’s when one person feels belittled and withdraws, and the other complains and yells and yells some more, and then – poof – one spouse is at the fire-pit for the duration, and the other has taken a promotion that takes her on the road. Although Charlie spouts the therapist’s gospel, we also see him deny it, make fun of it, and fail at it. We haven’t really seen him use it. There are glimmers, just glimmers, of evolution in Charlie.

Another of Johnson’s ideas is that when all other defenses fail, we “Freeze and Flee,” although Eugenides never mentions it. It’s the point at which both partners have retreated so far there is no hope for the marriage. Given Charlie’s denials and drinking, and Johanna’s restraining order, he and Johanna are nearly there.

There is something of the sage in Eugenides, something of the minister. Wikipedia quotes him as saying he thought that “to be a writer was the best thing a person could be. It seemed to promise maximum alertness to life. It seemed holy to me, and almost religious” (here). To a degree, Eugenides is testifying for Gottman and Johnson, but what saves the story from sermonizing is his talent: voice, wit, and slapstick, as well as his grasp of the tragic and his capacity for the lyric.

This story is about a man at a very bad pass, but it is such a good story. Perhaps that’s because Charlie can say of himself and Johanna, “Back then, we weren’t fleeing or chasing each other. We were just seeking, and every time one of us went looking, there the other was, waiting to be found.”

By story’s end, Charlie knows what matters to him. What he doesn’t know yet is what matters to his wife and kids. That’s another journey – the journey back. But the lyric ending makes you think he just might have the strength for it.

This story has a complex challenge: make some ideas work as fiction. It’s not a story you have to read twice; there are no tricks or twists; there are no masquerades. But I think it works. It is the garden variety trip to hell that each of us makes in one way or another, but bumped up a notch – or several notches – for effect. Makes you think.

“Goodnight Moon” and “The Runaway Bunny” are my stock baby presents. Maybe my stock wedding present should be John Gottman, Sue Johnson, and this short story.

21 thoughts on “Jeffrey Eugenides: “Find the Bad Guy””

  1. Michael says:

    I’m a fan of Eugenides, if not a big fan. I enjoy his writing, the narrative scope of it (particularly throughout the long history encompassing Middlesex) and the strongly voiced characters, often so compelling and authentic (those characters’ voices got me through The Marriage Plot). And I enjoyed this story of his, too.

    I’m the product of a broken home — one in which the father broke restraining orders repeatedly and wasn’t above terrorizing my mother and I in the middle of the night — so you can imagine from the start my antipathy toward this narrator’s jocular nature while creeping about in the bushes.

    Yes, I despised him from the start, and never believed him for a second. Still don’t. To me, the only truly authentic notes are his descriptions of his son on his back and his daughter staring at him, terrified at the top of the stairs before retreating deeper into the house.

    Those are his children’s reactions, and as far as I’m concerned, the only reactions in the story which matter.

    This man I describe was my step-father, and years later, long after the divorce, my mother’s defense was that she merely wanted me to grow up with a father. I adored my mother, regardless of her mistakes. She was the love of my life, really. Though I do love those still with me, deeply.

    But really, quite a sham to try and build a marriage around a sense of obligation toward an outside party (me). How different is that from building a marriage around a green card?

    I don’t know what Eugenides might be saying about immigration, the sad state of it today (if anything at all). Charlie D. will go the rest of his days sousing about in seedy, decrepit homes for practicing alcoholics.

    I don’t get much more from the story than that. But I could be blinded by bias

  2. Jan Wilkens says:

    I appreciated Michael’s observations because he was aware of the creepiness of the narrator much earlier than I was. He was a shallow, primitive man still hunkered over the fire trying to understand life. There were a lot of symbols and metaphors in the story and they started to bump into each other. For example, the attempts in the steam room to purge his memories of cruelty, his vision of the early man and woman whose only mission was survival, his moniker “the sage of the sagebrush” as he is literally hiding in the bushes…there were a lot.
    I too was a huge fan of Virgin Suicides and found the writing just brilliant.
    I also had the feeling this might be part of a novel and I hate reading excerpts…then it is definitely NOT a short story.
    Like the wife. I “hated” Charlie D.

  3. Michael says:

    Jan, great to read you comments. No doubt I went a bit overboard in my critique. I probably should have waited a while before typing. I did like the story, and I too wondered if it was an excerpt. Perhaps, though his last novel was published only a year or so ago, he is writing faster? Or maybe he’s eager to out a short story collection, given the form is seeing a minor renaissance.

  4. Trevor says:

    From his interview at The New Yorker website (here), it appears this was conceived and executed as a short story.

    Michael, I also think the story is relatively straight forward, but I liked it plenty.

  5. Michael says:

    Trevor, I’m peeking through my own set of bushes when I say that in spite of it hitting close to home in places, I liked it as well. There was one line I found particularly insightful. Outside of his general loutishness this bit of insight resonated with me:

    “Find the Bad Guy means how, when you’re arguing with your spouse, both people are trying to win the argument. Who didn’t close the garage door? Who left the Bigfoot hair clump in the shower drain? What you have to realize, as a couple, is that there is no bad guy. You can’t win an argument when you’re married. Because if you win, your spouse loses, and resents losing, and then you lose, too, pretty much.”

    He’s probably not as terrible as my rather visceral reaction might cast him. He has the drunkard’s tendency toward tragically insufficient self-castigation, though. An inability to fully, critically understand and accept responsibility for his own actions. Even at the very end he’s reminiscing, rather than accepting his role in the dissolution. Maybe if he sobered up.

  6. Trevor says:

    This post has been updated to include Betsy’s thoughts.

  7. Trevor says:

    Betsy, you have more compassion for Charlie D. than me! I never managed to believe him, feeling that all of his good insights were just a veneer over his ugly soul. Part of his ability to pass himself off as — and even see himself as — a good guy.

  8. Betsy says:

    Well, Trevor – I had a pre-disposition to listen the marriage theorems he’s spouting. I think they’re on to something. I agree that he’s mostly unreliable – except for a couple of places in the story – and they give me hope. But if you read the Johnson web – site, there are couples who cannot save themselves. They’ve gone too far. Johanna and Charlie are well in that territory,

    My brain is mush after this week. Where was I?

    Oh – that must have given you a start when I said I would give this story as as a wedding present. Well, what I meant was – as a warning. (Pretty awful wedding present, I’ll admit – a warning – but Johnson and Gottman are the way to go.)

  9. Trevor says:

    Oh – that must have given you a start when I said I would give this story as as a wedding present.

    Nope! That made perfect sense to me :-) .

  10. Michael says:

    Betsy, like Trevor, I really enjoyed your more optimistic view.

    I’m left wondering at this point why Eugenides chose as the genesis of this marriage a green card solution. After letting the story marinate a few days I still haven’t uncovered an answer that feels right. Perhaps the answer in this case is “just because.”

  11. Archer says:

    I thought this story was decent, but unremarkable. The multiple linguistic devices (of Charlie being Michigan-born but affecting Texan speech and the wife being German) seemed sort of pointless and heavy-handed to me. And I’m generally never a fan of first-person narrators who go back and forth between vernacular and literary-articulate. I also think certain plot points (like the affair with the teenage babysitter) were a bit cliched.

    But Eugenides deftly mixes humor and pathos, and I ultimately found it a poignant snapshot of a relationship in crisis. I really enjoyed reading everyone else’s viewpoints on this one!

  12. Betsy says:

    Hi Archer – welcome over here! I know – it was an odd mix of methods. But I really like a guy who cares about the state of marriage and has the right gurus. (Eugenides – not Charlie – Charlie has a long way to go.) I think I was just in admiration that E. would even try to combine the lecture with the short story. That’s quite a high bar.

  13. Mike says:

    Some wonderful sentences here, like this one: “It was like if Johanna and I were birds, her song wouldn’t be the song I’d recognize”.

    I agree, though, with Archer, about the combination between street talk and literary-articulate coming across as contrived. Someone talking the way the narrator does here 95% of the time would not go from “putting the blocks on the babysitter” to “easy as putting a blush on a rainbow”. But it’s a trend nowadays. It also popped up all over the place in the last Junot Diaz collection, This Is How You Lose Her. It irritated me there, and it irritates me here as well.

    Another thing is the use of words like Instagram and iPad (or, for that matter, Twitter, though I’m glad he didn’t use it here). Sentences like this one: “In mrsbieber vs. radiocowboy I see that mrsbieber has just played “poop”, make me cringe. I stop looking at the story as serious literature. A lot of this will age rather quickly; you won’t be able to make sense of it in twenty years – and isn’t that the mark of good literature, that it possesses a timeless quality? Then again, a paragraph comes along like the one about Ötzi, and I find myself liking it a lot. But overall, it’s not consistent. Most of the time, I’m reminded of a character from Nelson Demille novels: John Corey. Except Demille does it better.

    I enjoyed this one somewhat, but doubt if I’ll remember much about it a year from now.

  14. Betsy says:

    Mike – your remarks on the story’s language are really interesting, as well as your question about what makes a piece of literature timeless.
    Shakespeare uses some language that now requires notes, and yet we are so captivated by how most of the language works, we put up with the notes. We are also so riveted by his psychology that we leap over the notes. But his “with-it” language kept the people tuned in at the time.

    Shakespeare and Dickens remain the test-match: voice – always the voice.

    My own read on what makes the story tick and what might stop the reader is different. I liked the way Eugenides tried to show Charlie’s devolution/evolution through language – that at his best, he’s capable of using language with some truth. As Trevor pointed out, so well, the problem is that Charlie is hard to believe, and this is most evident in the way he talks. He’s hard to to trust. Hence the restraining order.

    The seriousness and repellent nature of his actions are important. The risk is that we won’t see beyond the comedy of his voice and his self-delusion to understand how wrong he has been.. Raskolnikov was all caught up in his times – and he was also deluded – but comedy is not what you remember from his story. The voice in “Crime and Punishment”, from the title on down, matches the seriousness of Raskolnikov’s offences.

    So the comic voice is a risk. I would argue that the comic voice is, at the moment, the American voice. (Not Thoreau any more, not Hemingway, but something more attuned to Philip Roth. At heart, when you look at her, Munro’s ironies are deeply comic. Jonathan Franzen’s satire is more sarcastic, and because of that, I am more drawn to Eugenides.)

    I thought the real-time therapeutic language was the actual high bar that Eugenides had to hurdle. Getting Charlie’s half take on it was crucial, but the writer still had to let enough of it in to give it the air it deserves. there was the risk that it would sound like jargon.

    My take on that is that Gottman is briliant, but translating his work into something people can really use and trust is difficult. People seem to have responded to Johnson’s interpretation of his work, but taken without understanding the breadth and scope of Gottman’s research, people might think her glib. I don’t. I think they’re both great.

    In this story we see only Johnson’s facile interpretation of Gottman; we don’t really see Gottman, except in Charlie’s offhand reference to “the science of love”. So I saw the possibility of people misjudging Johnson through the story. I saw that as the high bar.

    I agree with you about the story’s language, though – there was a lot in it that was risky – using language to characterize a puerile adult is tricky: you can end up loathing the guy’s company. You use the word “consistent” to describe what the language of the story isn’t. And I know you mean you just don’t believe that a guy like Charlie could have those depths. My husband would agree with you. I like to think we all have those depths – we just don’t access them very often. Somebody like Charlie – hardly ever.

    I was just very taken with the fact that Eugenides and I were thinking about the same thinkers.

  15. Rosalind says:

    Betsy, Charlie is a troubled guy who needs his alcohol to get through life. He lost my sympathy when he hits the dog…
    I did like the story especially the comments on marriage. I have been married 59 years. It takes kindness and laughter to get through the journey together. The simple stuff.

  16. Betsy says:

    I hear you Rosalind,

    Hitting the dog should be the tip-off. One should wonder if or when he’s hit anyone else in the house. Thanks for reminding me about that.

    Question for you, though. Is he a lost cause?

  17. Rosalind says:

    Betsy, I listened to the story to get a better feel for Charlie. Yes, he is a lost cause. He dumps his girl friend with no remorse,he seduces the babysitter in his own home,how sleazy and then confesses hoping that the Truth will give him a pass. All his relationships are self serving.
    We all look for a Bad guy to blame even when it’s ourselves.

  18. Betsy says:

    Rosalind – my reply is in the works!

  19. Ken says:

    I wonder if Eugenides means the hitting of the dog to instantly invalidate sympathy. That’s how it was for me. Once I read that I disliked Charlie. I liked the narrator’s voice very much and think Eugenides is a very slick, fun writer but far too on the surface. No subtext, no reason to ever read a second time.

  20. Betsy says:

    Hi Rosalind – Short take on the Charlie problem: Even Dostoevsky allows Raskolnikov to learn – although it takes Siberia to do it.

    Hi Ken – I think you and Rosalind are right about what Eugenides is doing with the dog. I would disagree on the substance, however. It’s Charlie that’s shallow, for sure. But I wonder if the it’s the vividness of the story-telling that makes this a one read story.

    I find a lot to think about in the story: can Charlie ever make up for what he has done? Does therapy have any tools for dealing with a sociopath? (Think Tony Soprano and Dr. Melfi.) Does science really have anything to tell us about love? (I actually think so, but I’m not sure about Eugenides.) Where is the line when a couple drifts so far apart there’s no retrieving the marriage? (Charlie hitting the dog is long in the aftermath of that.)

    But I agree – there is an ease and a slick factor to Eugenides. But I enjoy that, being neither at ease nor slick myself.

    PS I think the site is working better. I could post this directly into the box without getting dislodged.

  21. Jan Wilkens says:

    Ken, your insight about Eugenides nor requiring a second read. I love a short story writer who makes me read again; and again. Andre Dubus (the father, not the son) is that kind of writer for me.
    Betsy, I don’t think Charlie is a sociopath. Just not a nice guy. Self-centered and immature and unable to see what was right in front of him, great kids and family.

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