“Walking on Water” is the fourth story in Alice Munro’s third book, Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You. For an overview with links to reviews of the other pieces in this book, please click here.
The title takes us to the Biblical story where Jesus walked on water, beckoning Peter to come out to him. When Peter starts to sink, Jesus rescues him but says, “O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?” Munro’s story also brings up the Road to Emmaus, when Jesus, after his crucifixion and resurrection, appeared to two of his disciples who fail to recognize him until. The Bible says that “their eyes were holden.” What is it here that Munro wants us to see? Where is the kernel of knowledge we need to discover, to hold on to?
My eyes might be holden when it comes to this story. On the one hand, it contains so much that is genuinely intriguing, mysterious, powerfully emotional. Yet, on the other hand, I cannot see, I am failing to recognize . . . something. Please forgive this post, in which I fail to come to a conclusion but instead offer a kind of thought process through this strange, and probably ultimately unsuccessful (but still engaging), story.
When the story begins, Alice Munro introduces us to one of her male protagonists, Mr. Lougheed, a retired druggist and widower, who lives in a kind of condominium with other elderly people and a group of hippies. That’s an interesting mixture right there, and a potential theme is the older generation passing away, uncomprehendingly making room for this strange young group who, it seems to Mr. Lougheed, wear costumes, and who have sex anywhere. Once Mr. Lougheed’s neighbors Rex and Calla had sex in full view in the hallway, something Mr. Lougheed stumbled upon and felt implicated in or even the subject of deliberate mockery. The generational difference comes up again late in the story:
Another thing he was made to think about was the difference between that time [his childhood] and now. It was too much. Nobody could get from one such time to another, and how had he done it? How could one man know Mr. Lougheed’s father and mother, and now know Rex and Calla?
Uncomprehending. Yet Mr. Lougheed goes out and mingles, contrary to his nature, because he feels it’s good for him. At least, this is what he tells himself. Truly, he just wants to go talk to Eugene, a twenty-eight-year-old who meditates without his shirt on and with the door open. There Mr. Lougheed watches, again uncomprehending.
Beyond what Mr. Lougheed refuses to see, Mr. Lougheed simply cannot understand Eugene, this strange young man who studies and meditates, who seems to have achieved a state of control. He defends Eugene when everyone else thinks Eugene’s a bit crazy. One day, Mr. Lougheed hears a few of the other old men talking about how Eugene said he was going to walk on water. Mr. Lougheed simply cannot believe Eugene is that crazy. It must be an elaborate joke. The walk is scheduled for Sunday morning.
In the meantime, we roam around Mr. Lougheed’s various thoughts. Two of the most elusive are, naturally, the most interesting. And I believe in these two aspects, the story comes together thematically, though I’m still not quite sure how.
The first thread is some kind of darkness in Eugene’s past.
At some point there had been a breakdown, a lengthy crisis from which he still, perhaps, believed himself to be recovering. Yes, he had the air of someone who gauges and guards his convalescence.
Despite this, though, Eugene has come to “achieve” some state of calm and control:
Eugene in all the ordinary movements and exchanges of life was an achievement, in the face of something he did not mention. His breakdown? His bursting knowledge? His understanding?
Yes, which is it? I’d like to know myself.
The other thread is a darkness from Mr. Lougheed’s own past that he somehow connects to Eugene: the manhunt for Frank McArter, a young man who had spells of fits that took him to an institution. When Frank came back home, hopefully cured, he ended up killing his mother and father with a shovel. Mr. Lougheed was too young to go on the manhunt, but his father and brother went. Now, Mr. Lougheed has dreams of searching but never finding (more ties to the New Testament). Mr. Lougheed now wishes he could ask his dead father and brother what happened to Frank McArter. Did they catch him? In the dream, he is always just on verge of finding out. Until, one night at about the time Eugene is walking on water, the dream breaks another barrier, and Mr. Lougheed finds out what happened to Frank: he drowned himself. Mr. Lougheed is not sure whether this dream is some part of his own memory, finally uncovered, or something his subconscious mind just made up.
Frank’s potential drowning — not to mention his youth and his breakdown — connects to Eugene. When Eugene goes out on the pier that Sunday morning, by all appearances he fails to walk on water. His body just sinks. When he comes out of the water, he says:
“I’m sorry if this has not been what you all hoped for,” said Eugene in a gently raised voice, looking around. “The fault is all in me. I haven’t reached the point I hoped I might have reached, in my control. However if this has been disappointing for you it has been very interesting and wonderful for me and I have learned something important. I want to thank you.”
We don’t know what he learned, and we never see him again. When Mr. Lougheed goes to talk to him later, he finds he’s just gone. All of his possessions are still in his room, but Eugene has gone, the last anyone saw he was headed east over the golf course. Mr. Lougheed asks his hippie neighbors if they’ve seen him, and we get this interesting, revealing exchange:
“What does he want Yew-gene for?” said another voice in the background, probably Rover’s, his tinny whine. This voice offered a conjecture Mr. Lougheed immediately and ever afterwards pretended he had not heard.
We’ve known all along that Mr. Lougheed was probably drawn to Eugene sexually, though that thought would never come to the surface in Mr. Lougheed’s own head. At any rate, Mr. Lougheed tries to follow Eugene’s path:
On the other side of the golf course was an area of wild brush, bushes about as high as a man’s head. There were rocks slipping into the water. No beach here. The water looked fairly deep. A man was standing out on the rocks holding onto a kite string. There were small boats out on the water, with red and blue sails. Could a man fall here, and not be noticed? Could a man slide in quietly causing no stir, and be gone?
We never know what happens. The implication, of course, and one that Mr. Lougheed does articulate, is that Eugene has committed suicide. Again, the question lingers, what did Eugene learn? Was “that morning’s show” just “a rehearsal, an imitation”? And how does it tie to Frank McCarty? And how does it tie to religion, or, at least, experience in the phenomenal world?
And perhaps that’s it. Mr. Lougheed, the pragmatist, the man who became an apprentice druggist, assumed the trade, and worked there his entire professional life, the man who “learned how to get through all kinds of conversations with all sorts of people, to skate along affably and go on thinking his own thoughts.” Mr. Lougheed is a man who thinks he knows the world he lives in. This is a world that does not include religious experience, homosexuality, madness. He doesn’t follow Eugene when Eugene says “the world we accept — you know, external reality . . . is nothing like so fixed as we have been led to believe.”
On the one hand, Eugene sinks into the water. On the other, Mr. Lougheed lives not only in the same world but also the same building as this younger generation; he’s been trying not to be a hermit, but now he simply does not know if he can go on.
“Walking on Water” by Alice Munro, resists any easy access.
Beginning with the story’s title, the idea of miracle appears and reappears side by side with the idea of being transformed. “Walking on Water” refers to the New Testament story when the disciples get caught aboard their boat at night in a storm. Jesus walks out on the water, calms the storm, boards their boat, and saves them.
In contrast, in Munro’s story, the young mystic, Eugene, is perhaps hoping to calm some kind of storm within himself, and the miracle would be if he could leave his body, which he claims has been done. He says:
Now suppose I step out on the water and my apparent body — this body — sinks like a stone, there is a possibility that my other body will rise, and I will be able to look down into the water and watch myself.
Eugene has also proposed that some people are able to walk on burning coals and levitate.
What is important is the impulse to leave the body; this story alludes to sexual anxiety over and over, and sexual isolation may be at the core of what Munro is trying to say. In fact, there are multiple allusions to perversions of happy sex: voyeurism and molestation among them. Woven into this is an uneasy homo-eroticism, as if that might be what it is at the bottom of all the anxiety. The story is difficult to piece together, and I wonder if it is that Munro doesn’t yet have the language to sustain her through this difficult story.
When Eugene’s friend, Mr. Lougheed, replies:
Until I see with my own eyes that wastepaper basket rise and float over my head [. . .] I will believe nothing of the kind [that it is possible for people to levitate or walk on water or walk on burning coals].
Having already said, “Impasse,” to Mr. Lougheed, Eugene now comments: “Road to Emmaus.”
Munro has here put two people at philosophical odds. Eugene compares Mr. Lougheed to the disciples who could not see Jesus when he miraculously appeared to them after his death. In this case, Eugene is the prophet whom Mr. Lougheed does not completely see.
Eugene, after all, does try, one Sunday morning at ten, to walk on water, for a gathered crowd of “maybe three dozen” hippies and oldsters, two of the oldsters even singing a hymn. Eugene went under, but did not accomplish walking on the water. When he emerged, he said:
I don’t even know how to swim [. . .]. I crawled along the pier. I could have come up sooner, but I liked — being under water.
He admits to the crowd that he failed, but he says he has “learned something important.” With that, he walks off and mysteriously disappears, as it seems, for good, leaving his meager belongings and his paperback library behind.
Learning about the world and having experience with the world is another important thread. Eugene’s room is filled with books; to Mr. Lougheed, who never went to college, the names of these philosophers are “luminous.” He also devours the hippie newspaper cover to cover. Mr. Lougheed thinks of living in the hippie house as a good choice, as “whatever he learned here, he was not sorry to have learned.”
A third thread has to do with sex: when Mr. Lougheed reads every word and advertisement of the hippie newspaper, he does so with “an odd apprehension of a message that could flash out almost too quick for the eye to catch it.” One day, he catches sight of fellow roomers Rex and Calla, hippies, having sex. It gives Rex an opportunity to laugh at Mr. Lougheed’s shock. It is also possible that Rex and Calla staged this scene just in order to taunt Mr. Lougheed. It is also possible that Mr. Lougheed has been studying Rex and Calla with far too much interest, and they want to teach him a lesson. When he thinks about it, however, Mr. Lougheed says he doesn’t want to leave this peculiar rooming house because it is here that he has learned so much. This is even though he has had sexual experience, he thinks. Mr. Lougheed remembers that he once paid, at school, to see a brother and sister have sex in the boys’ washroom. This he thinks of as “experience.” In fact, one suspects he has had almost no actual sexual experience except unrewarding experience.
One of the roomers makes an unpleasant insinuation about Mr. Lougheed and Eugene. “This voice offered a conjecture Mr. Lougheed immediately and ever afterwards pretended he had not heard.” The silence and denial Mr. Lougheed observes seems to point to homosexuality — something that would make the threats against him more ominous. But Munro is being very cloaked.
Munro pointedly uses the word “unmolested” twice in the story, both times as a thought Mr. Lougheed has. The first time, it is to describe the isolation he has carved out for himself very early on: “His aim was to give people what they thought they wanted, and continue himself, solitary and unmolested.” Late in the story, Munro describes him thinking about the music the hippies play: “Sometimes [. . .] he would hear an absolutely clear, and familiar, unmolested line of music.”
It seems strange that Munro would go to such lengths to use this word, especially because it clanks in both sentences, as if she is signaling to the reader that molestation is something that Mr. Lougheed doesn’t want to think about, but it keeps escaping anyway, as if, perhaps, the crime that McArter committed was not just murder, but also molestation, perhaps of Mr. Lougheed himself.
That the story is not successful turns on the blurry way Munro uses the word molestation. It is as if Lougheed is trying to figure something out, such as whether homosexuality is molestation, or whether it is bad or good, but the story is just too blurry for the reader to get a handle on the author’s purpose.
The fact that Eugene is thinking about experimenting with leaving his body ties in with the sexual thread, as does Mr. Lougheed’s idea about giving people what they think they want — whoever those people are.
Finally, there is some research to show that people who have been molested survive the experience by imagining themselves not in their bodies, but merely observers.
Another somewhat unconnected thread has to do with violence, isolation, persecution, and capture. Mr. Lougheed sees himself as having a tendency toward “becoming a hermit”; Eugene was rumored to have had a breakdown; Mr. Lougheed is troubled by a memory of a young man who had been “taken away from home for a while after a series of fits.” That young man subsequently murdered his parents and was the subject of a manhunt.
Violence also rears itself in the rooming house: in addition to their sexual taunting, Rex or Calla or their roommate Rover threaten Mr. Lougheed by painting a strange sign on his door, and one of them leaves a dead bird outside Mr. Lougheed’s room. In addition, the interior of Mr. Lougheed’s mind is troubled by visions of suicide by drowning, either by Frank McArter or Eugene, or both.
Lougheed is a strange name: the most likely pronunciation might be Lock-heed, as in a carefully locked self. Another pronunciation might be lug-head. A further variation might be Luff-head, as when a boat headed in the wrong direction will have a sail not properly filled with wind. A peculiar pronunciation might be Low-feed, as if that was all the knowledge available to him. It is as if Munro is signaling to us, with this peculiar name, his lack of knowledge, his divestment of identity, his estrangement from life. But why?
A final thread is the odd mirroring that is going on: Eugene and Frank McArter are somehow associated in Mr. Lougheed’s mind with each other, with searching, with the truth, and most likely, with sexuality. Mr. Lougheed never finds out from his family what happened to Frank McArter — there is silence and gap surrounding him. In middle age, Mr. Lougheed begins dreaming about going out with his father to search for something, but years go by, and the dream never resolves into a solution. Finally, when Eugene disappears, Mr. Lougheed realizes that the dream ends with finding Frank’s body drowned, a suicide perhaps, a mirror of the suicide he fears Eugene will be, a vision of the suicide he might attempt himself.
Making sense of this story is difficult going. Gaps are ordinarily a successful device for Munro, but this story seems so filled with gaps that it seems as if whole pages or chapters are missing from its development, or as if the topic has required code and silence, or as if it is two stories cobbled together unsuccessfully.
The story troubles the reader: there is the strangest sense that Mr. Lougheed has fallen in love with Eugene, but does not have any language for it except images of perversion and violence. There is a strange sense that Eugene has run away, perhaps because of the sign on Mr. Lougheed’s door and the dead bird in the hallway between their rooms. At any rate, as for his powerful fascination with Eugene, there is the strange sense that Mr. Lougheed has kept this side of himself locked away til now, ever unmolested, almost never persecuted, and forever misunderstood.
The images that make up this story are so fascinating that it is hard to put the story aside; the connections between the images, however, are not sufficient for this reader. It feels ghostly, unfinished. I am not, after quite a bit of effort and time, sure what essential truth Munro was headed for. It feels as though sexuality is a big part of it, but my proofs are slender indeed.
In Lives of Mothers and Daughters: Growing Up with Alice Munro, Sheila Munro says that “Walking on Water” was one of the stories her mother “didn’t think worked all that well.”
What I do know is that Mr. Lougheed is devastated by Eugene’s disappearance. At the end, he feels, for the first time, that he might not be strong enough for the steps ahead. Age has gotten away with him. With sadness the reader realizes it is too late for him to be saved.
We forget that Stonewall, the violent uprising against a police raid on a gay bar in New York in 1969 was just the beginning of the Gay Liberation movement. If gay homosexuality is what Munro is talking about, it is early days. If child molestation is what she is talking about, it is early days. Even she might not have had the language for it.
A few houses down from me is a place upon whose barn is written, in large, faded letters “Hopbrook Farm.” Once upon a time, it was a hippie commune. Members of the group still live in the area, but they’ve had a pretty well-known split. Nevertheless, anyone who had lived through the time had to be curious about what it was they’d dreamed and felt. All that freedom! The lure for someone like Lougheed makes sense. All that freedom! The crack-up seems inevitable. In “Walking on Water,” Munro got that right.