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.
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.
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.