Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Thomas Pierce’s “Ba Baboon” was originally published in the June 2, 2014 issue of The New Yorker.
“Ba Baboon,” by Thomas Pierce is terrific. It goes down easy, but it is thought provoking. I read each sentence curious to know more, curious to see what was going to happen, afraid of what was going to happen, and curious to know whether either of the two main characters would come to their senses, so to speak.
Mary and Brooks are brother and sister, but one is probably in her thirties and the other in his forties. Suspense is part of the story telling: it opens with the two of them trapped in a closet. Pierce slows the story down by alternating the focus of the narrative between the brother and sister. They tell the story by turns, talking first about themselves, and then about each other. Brooks, the older one, the successful one, has always taken care of Mary. Now the tables are turned, however, because Brooks is slowly recovering from a serious brain injury. He says of himself:
Sure, he can fry a few eggs, but only if there was someone there to help him, to keep him on task, to clean up the mess when his hands fail him, to calm him down when he loses his temper, to reel him in.
Mary is the one doing all this for a month while the real caretaker, their mother, is away.
The story plays out in suspense, mystery, slow revelations, and finally, a kind of resolution. The story revolves around the fact that the two of them are trapped in this house and need to get out. Or they are trapped in their thinking and need to get out. Or both. I couldn’t put it down. What I like about this story, and I like it immensely, is that while it is talking about assault, threat, fear, and brain injury. It is also talking about identity and responsibility, and about how we “accept” revelations we have about ourselves.
Pierce’s Page-Turner interview with Cressida Leyshon is wonderfully good. He talks about how he works, and he alludes to the deeper meanings he intends for the story to have. He also talks about how he hopes that the resolutions in his stories offer the possibility of hope, or as he puts it, light. This matters to me. I am old enough to know that hope is a necessity, even if it is a flickering thing. I used to find the “Ice Storm” type of story bracing, and I still do, because there is a value in recognizing just how bad things really are. But now, I find a flicker of hope a necessity. One of our relatives gave birth in a cattle car while returning from years of imprisonment in Siberia. Life can be dreadful. We, in turn, can be dreadful to others, can be dead wrong about what is right. One must look straight at these things. But to do so, I find there must also be a flicker of hope. So I welcome Thomas Pierce as well as the flatly dark view.
Pierce is immensely gifted. He can tell a yarn that draws you in, he can put a new spin on a couple of familiar situations, and he can convince you that the traps he’s put his people in are traps they might be able to spring.
Read the story, read the Page-Turner interview, and then also read “The Critics,” which was published in The Atlantic, read “Grasshopper Kings,” which was published in The Missouri Review, and read “Why We Ate Mud,” which was published by Oxford American. That’s what I’m going to do.
I also recommend Jullianne Ballou’s interview with Pierce in Oxford American. And I recommend “Shirley Temple Three,” which we reviewed here a couple of years ago after it appeared in the New Yorker. After I’ve finished my reading, and you yours, I look forward, a little later in the week, to more conversation about this author.