Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Brad Watson's “Eykelboom” was originally published in the November 24, 2014 issue of The New Yorker.
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Brad Watson’s “Eykelboom” is strange, dark, troubling, and fine. A family named Eykelboom arrives at their new house with themselves and all their belongings in a dump truck. The family is strange: the mother never leaves the house, the father has a kind of fake swagger, and the boy disappears inside the house for days at a time. When he is at school, the boy keeps himself under wraps; when he is at home, he appears to be very afraid of his father.

A group of neighborhood boys sees all this and they recoil. At one point, the boys see the father greet the boy with a belt hanging from his fist. To them, the Eykelbooms were a “tiny, deeply threatening invasion.”

Eykelboom, as the boy is known to the neighborhood, tries a little bit to make friends with the neighborhood gang, but they rebuff him. One day, when Eykelboom is hanging around outside their tree fort, the gang sends the middle MacGowan brother down to beat him up. The narrator is very specific that even though there was no real fight, the middle brother did manage to make it very clear that Eykelboom wasn’t wanted. Eykelboom “ran away to his house in his outrage and grief.”

Fires are set in the woods, things are stolen, buildings vandalized, and a dog belonging to the boys is killed. The boys think it’s Eykelboom. He as much as admits it’s him. The reader is of two minds. It could be, it might not be.

And then there is the virtuoso turn: the story within a story. The boys, including Eykelboom, see some men struggling to free a horse from a sinkhole in the swamp. It is a terrible and frightening scene, and Eykelboom says at this point he would cut the horse’s throat. When the horse is suddenly freed, it escapes. It runs away. And so does Eykelboom, as if the horse has shown him the way.

An official search is set up, but he is never found. After a while, the parents move away. After a while, the boys grow up.

Of the outcome, there are two versions, similar to the way we often let two impossibilities simultaneously co-exist.

No one would ever know what became of Eykelboom. If he was alive somewhere, the boys felt sure that no one knew who he really was. They believed he had made some kind of miraculous escape. Into some other life that he had made up and now occupied, somewhere else.

But the other extreme is this: Eykelboom is lost in the swamp, sunk in a sinkhole:

The brothers imagined Eykelboom there, preserved and whole, curled up in a cold, fluid clay, drifting very slowly with the earth itself. His fists lay knotted against his cheeks, his knees to his chest, his face closed tight in an infinite, chilled gestation.

Eykelboom is apparently a Dutch name, but a strange one (not Knickerbocker, not Brinkelhoff).

Holland had been leveled by the Germans in WWII, and despite a huge Marshall Plan grant, it was so poor right after the war that thousands of Dutch families fled to countries all over the world. Almost twenty years later, the Eykelbooms have arrived in Mississippi, dragging their wartime inheritance with them — fear, sadness, losses, and desperation, as well as the memory of inexplicable and terrifying violence. I read all this into the Eykelboom name. Watson merely presents us with the fact of the arrival of these unpleasant people.

But I read the war story into it — then the violence and repression that suffuses this family make sense. The father apparently beats the kid, and there are inexplicable periods when the kid disappears from sight. Watson does not explain. The reader wonders if the kid has broken bones that have to heal. Or whether the father ties the child up.

There is also the possibility that Eykelboom is a Jewish name, and that the family’s losses in World War II were extreme. Young survivors of the Holocaust were known to marry quickly but not particularly carefully. Marriage had an urgent purpose: to bring new life, to replace the dead, to recreate the family that had been blasted from the earth, often in circumstances that left the survivors feeling a terrible burden of guilt. Marriage was not intended to be a romantic union. The children of these marriages sometimes report the claustrophobic closeness that surviving the Holocaust imposed on the family. The Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse says, “Domestic abuse occurs in Jewish families at about the same rate as in the general community — about 15% and the abuse takes place among all branches of Judaism and at all socio-economic levels.”

Or the name could be derived from a similar German name, Eischelbaum, meaning acorn tree, but in Dutch the meaning of Eischel is lost in Eykel, something that mirrors the way Eykelboom’s identity is unavailable to the neighborhood kids.

Or the name may be useful to the story in the way it suggests sudden explosion, and in particular, explosion of the “I,” as in how Eykelboom himself seems exploded into fragments of memory, or how the Eykelboom family explodes, or how the Eykelboom family arrival in the neighborhood is experienced as an invasion, or how the neighborhood boys encounter an explosion of their own selves in the story.

But Watson has made sure to make the origins of the Eykelboom family a mystery. After all, the key thing is that in the Eykelbooms, the boys have been confronted with something they barely comprehend.

The two visions the boys have at the end of Eykelboom — one alive, one dead — are the two choices we all have. We can grow and change, or we can remain closed, in an “infinite, chilled gestation.”

The story, placed in The New Yorker the week before Thanksgiving, reminds me of the American ideal; it is the holiday when anyone is welcome at the table. And many of us have been the stranger at someone’s table, and many of us have been the host of strangers at the table and proud of it.

But this story is about the way our lives belie that ideal, how we suspect strangers, fear them, fence them out, pen them up, or otherwise deal roughly or even violently with what feels alien.

The story reminds me that we are presently embroiled in a national debate regarding whether or not immigration reform is necessary, and what form it should take. The story reminds me of this argument, reminds me that being a refugee is no simple business, not from WWII, or Somalia or Pakistan or Syria or Liberia or wherever.

I don’t know if Watson intended me to specifically think any of this. After all, he has taken great trouble to tell a tale. I think he was completely taken with trying to tell the tale, make it as real as possible. But I think he knew it would remind me of things.

Watson beautifully lets us know how free the boys are, how free they are of parents, or guidance, or advice, or limits. By rights, these American boys should be like Huck, basically good and always learning. That’s what their parents thought, if they gave it a thought. But the reader recognizes something else — these boys are no ideal — they are merely real. Free to play the bully, they play the bully. The dirt they wear beneath their fingernails is real. The things they do are real, have consequences, and are hard to live with.

The story seems to suggest that we may be born with a natural mean streak that needs to be corralled. That if left to our own devices, we feel it very easy to gang up, and gang up on people.

This story gets under my skin, spreads, makes me uncomfortable, reminds me of all sorts of things, is a virtuoso turn. There is so much that I want to say about every paragraph that it has taken me hours to keep my thoughts in check, keep them to a decent minimum.

I would like to write about the narrative voice, the way the voice writes the story in the plural and then all of a sudden, you think maybe you know which one of the brothers is speaking (the one that almost cried, the one that didn’t want to beat up Eykelboom), as if this were the key thing that made him write the story — to protest — I didn’t mean it, I didn’t want to be there, or how did that happen that I was there and I did that?

I would like to write about the way the name Eykelboom reminds me of “eye” and “I” at the same time, and that somehow has something to do with why the story is being told in the first place. That maybe what the eye has seen, I must tell. I’d like to write about the way the detail works. I’d like to write about how the story is some kind of variation on something I know to be very real. I’d like to write about how it seems to me to be a master lesson in how to use fiction to remember being a child, or how to use fiction to write a memoir that’s true, or how to use restraint to allow the paradoxical to appear alive.

I get the strangest sense from the story of the way war lives long beyond the simple event of it. I am reminded of Erwin Staub, the man who writes about the importance of the active bystander — and the terrible need these boys had for an active parent or an active bystander, and the even more terrible need the Eykelbooms had for one.

I thought it was a great story and I thought it very hard to write about, very hard to contain, very hard to pin down, very hard to encounter. Right now, I’m thinking how I would like to compare the way it reminds me of McGuane’s “Hubcaps” and how it is so different. Except that both stories are so completely alive and feel true to me.

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By |2015-02-03T01:03:47-04:00November 17th, 2014|Categories: Brad Watson, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |27 Comments

27 Comments

  1. Scott Foshee November 17, 2014 at 4:10 pm

    Excellent story I probably never would have read without a mention here. Thanks for your good recs!

  2. Trevor Berrett November 19, 2014 at 5:40 pm

    Betsy’s thoughts added above.

  3. lotusgreen November 20, 2014 at 4:31 pm

    (I’m going to post this before reading Betsy’s comments. I may be back.)

    Bad, bad, bad. I’m sorry — did I say, “Bad!”? Okay, explain to me: not one drop of sunshine — everything is painted in greys and mudtones and camouflage; if Dinosaurs on Other Planets was Lifetime TV, what’s this — Duck Dynasty? If this is more for the boys than the girls, then, by Betsy’s Rule(tm), it’s a failed story.

    The only thing you’ve got here are bullies and abusers and taunters and bullies, and one boy’s momentary wish to join them. Another boy, for an instant, some time in the future, may have registered that Mr. Eykelboom was out of line to whip his son, but by then that son had stepped off-stage, left the wings, gotten in a taxi and gone.

    Too little, far too little, far too late.

    –Lily

  4. Scott November 20, 2014 at 5:08 pm

    “This story gets under my skin, spreads, makes me uncomfortable, reminds me of all sorts of things, is a virtuoso turn. There is so much that I want to say about every paragraph that it has taken me hours to keep my thoughts in check, keep them to a decent minimum.”

    My thoughts exactly on this piece. I still can’t pinpoint anything yet, except that it was a great read. The ambiguity of the Eykelbooms’ past and future is stirring, but I do wish I was let in on at least a little bit of it. Specifically what the blank stares between the cop and the Eykelboom father were all about.

  5. Trevor Berrett November 20, 2014 at 6:05 pm

    Oh boy! I still haven’t read it, but I’m excited to, especially to see which side I fall on. I think I’ll land with Betsy and Scott, as I like Brad Watson’s work.

  6. Lee Monks November 20, 2014 at 6:33 pm

    I thought the name rang a bell but wasn’t sure – having just checked I realise this is the guy who wrote The Heaven of Mercury, which I picked up by accident a while ago. He’s a real talent based on that: I will read this ASAP.

  7. minorcharacter November 25, 2014 at 6:26 pm

    This story, from the very beginning, totally, utterly, absolutely unimpressed me. I’m becoming quite jaded with TNY (and other big glossies that publish fiction)…this story needed the attentive and courageous attention of a cutthroat editor, though I’m not even sure that could save this thing.

    This was just plain bad writing – too many adverbs, too much description in trailing, long-winded chunky, clunky adverb and adjective phrases. I was taken out of the story with every other sentence.

    I’m glad I’m getting older and calling bullsh*t on a lot of writing that one is, apparently, supposed to be floored by – I don’t mean to denigrate anyone’s love of this story, but man oh man was this similar to freshman workshoppy overwriting. I’m using this example with my students as a motivator for them that proves bad writing can slip through the cracks of even the most (at one point) respected publishers of short fiction. I’ve been more impressed by stories turned in to me by eighth graders with the ability and desire to jettison a lazy sentence in favor of one that actually sounds like it took some effort to create.

  8. Betsy November 25, 2014 at 11:07 pm

    Lily (lotusgreen) – finally a minute to reply to you. I agree that the story was dark. One of the things that I thought redeemed the story was the fact that it was being told by an adult voice, perhaps a voice that had to learn to live with what happened so long ago.

    Another thing I liked about it was that it was coherent and focused; it had a kind of unity that made it passionate, despite the cool tone of the narrator.

    And it was about the stranger. I remember when the refugee family arrived in my pristine New England town and lived in an old warehouse. (It, too, was like a tiny invasion. After all – they weren’t living in a house, like the rest of us. They were living in a warehouse.) The girl was 13, but something made people think it was a good idea to put her in fourth grade. She had gorgeous thick blond hair that she wore in long braids like ropes. And she spoke no English. I have no idea what ever happened to her. They stayed for a while, she didn’t come to school very often, and then they were gone.

    And my husband’s father was a refugee. A doctor, but a refugee.

    One of my students in my last year of teaching arrived at our school suddenly from Pakistan. He was Pashtun. Think about that.

    My grandfather was born in a hollow in West Virginia. Among his greatgrandchildren are brides and husbands from Vietnam, India, and Chile, all recent arrivals.

    So the story of the recent arrivals struck a nerve.

    Of course, the argument could be made that the Eykelbooms had been in America for centuries. It was just that they were northerners in a southern state, and not just strangers, but downright strange. I am sympathetic to that tale as well.

    Particularly, I liked the fact that the story was about something that happened that this narrator had to re-encounter repeatedly as he grew older and perhaps wiser.

    But I get it. Not your cup of tea.

  9. Annawade November 26, 2014 at 2:09 am

    I just ready this story and I really liked it. It’s very abstract and it could mean many things. The language is great, it’s very subtle along with the actions of the characters. This is the kind of story you can read three times and notide something else. Also I wonder want the horse drowning in the sinkhole meant? Some of the parts in the story seemed unbesscsary but still good. I love the last paragraph of the story

  10. Betsy November 26, 2014 at 8:13 am

    Hi minorcharacter – Give us several sentences that exemplify “freshman workshoppy writing”. Give us the full treatment.

  11. minorcharacter November 26, 2014 at 2:41 pm

    “As he pushed the lawnmower back and forth across the grass, he sucked in his gut like a movie actor.”

    — A sentence that uses a simile that seems like it means something when it really means nothing at all. What exactly does sucking in ‘his gut like a movie actor’ look like? Is it supposed to dazzle us with the reference to a movie actor? Read that sentence ten times and see if it doesn’t mean less and less and less with each read until finally you just give up and move on to the next sentence, hoping that the writer’s apparent laziness is just a blip. But then, right at the next sentence you read this:

    “You could always tell that it was sucked in because it wasn’t muscled, just smoothly concaved by the sucking.”

    — Really? You could always tell it was sucked in because it had no apparent muscles? Huh? And you could also tell it was sucked in because it was ‘just smoothly concaved’? No, you can’t. Again, lazy writing that seems like it is saying something interesting when, in fact, it says less and less with each reading. This might (maybe) be an interesting first draft sentence in a young writer’s story but not in a published TNY piece.

    “Of course, it was common in those days for parents to hit their children, with everything from hairbrushes to toilet brushes, flyswatters, switches, bare palms, rolled newspapers, and folded belts.”

    — By the time I got to folded belts I was like, Okay, okay, I get it – parents hit their kids with a lot of stuff. Lists are for grocery shopping. You’re a writer…understood. But more words don’t make a better sentence.

    “They were low-ranking white-collar, nervous, inattentive, soft, unhappy.”

    — Again, a list. Without illuminating much. This was just a lazy way of trying to encapsulate these people. A more interesting, and more effective way of describing them could have been done by using this sentence as the foundation of the next sentence, maybe this –
    ‘They were low-ranking white-collar, soft and nervous.’ The simple editing out of a couple of words would have done this sentence a world of good and implied their inattention and unhappiness and illumined much more of their character and, perhaps most importantly, let the reader do some of the work the reader is supposed (and loves) to do in this transaction we are engaged in with the writer.

    “Nor was he allowed to run loose in the dense tract of virgin forest that began just behind the houses on the north side of the street. These woods were owned by a cantankerous old man named Chandler, who lived in an old plantation-style house perched on the edge of the woods as if he were the resident troll whose mission it was to guard them. Chandler had once owned the land under the boys’ houses, too, before the developer bought it from him and paved what had been a dirt road to the lake and built a dozen small ranch-style houses on a dozen small lots, six on either side of the street. At the end of the turnaround was the big house that the developer had built for himself.”

    — Boy, did this need some clarity. Why wouldn’t the developer have bought out Chandler’s house? Why on earth does he still remain there? Had to read this paragraph three times to be clear about Chandler, the developer, the layout…the REASON. Again, a seeming holdover from the first draft that should have either been removed or shortened. The point is, it just stopped me up.

    This is all in the first 1,000 words. There is much more but after spending just 30 minutes on this exercise, it made me realize that life is way too short to spend like this. I guess doing this helped me learn that there is plenty of lazy writing around and I’d rather quickly jettison the junk and find the gems.

    Cheers,
    Mark

  12. lotusgreen November 26, 2014 at 4:22 pm

    Thanks, Betsy, and thanks, Mark. Glad to hear your comments, Mark — that was a level I didn’t even get to, but I reacted much the same way as you did. As my “notes” are different from yours, I’ll add them:

    blowing his customized musical horn — would have been nice to know how it had been customized before several more references had been made to it and it was at last revealed to be “Dixie.”

    The middle brother fell off without a word and Eykelboom ran away toward his house, keening in his outrage and grief. Possibly it was outraged grief. You’re the author; don’t you know?

    He wintered in his brooding or became as spectral as a ghost, there but not there in any evidence. Then summer came again and he drifted or sifted back into visibility, though he kept himself peripheral and quiet. Pretty writing, but wonder about those “or”s.

    He affected or displayed a studied nonchalance Ditto.

    Then they realized that he probably hadn’t but didn’t care. ???

    Etc. I felt toyed with by the author.

    Betsy — Something you said about this story, while not something I’d not heard before, touched me deeply as though it was the first time. Something about the story being run at Thanksgiving, the say when everyone is welcome at the table.
    There may be no worse feeling than not being so.

    I also wonder at your many comments about “outsiders.” In your earlier comments, it involved the war, camps, refugees, and again in these newer comments more refugees. Is it possible that the story touched something as deeply in you as your comments touched me, but so personal to you, and not to me, for example, that that may be involved in our different reactions to it? I mean, all my grandparents were, I guess, refugees, Jews from Eastern Europe in the very early 20th century, and though they were, yes, frequently abused for it, I don’t see them in this story whatsoever!

  13. Betsy November 28, 2014 at 1:04 pm

    Well, Mark! That’s the full treatment! Thank you. I hear what you are saying about the writing. I know that the experience of reading the story made me very tired, and you have identified how circumlocution contributed.

    The topic – bullying – is so uncomfortable that I thought it was the topic that made me tired.

    Lily – you are so right. There’s some kind of nerve in me that Watson has struck. Actually, I think you are being kind of generous to me. I got a little carried away. Being a responsive reader is one thing. Being carried off on a tangent is another.

    But I still hold my original opinion. The story’s worth the read. Bullying is a terrible topic. Where do we get great stories about bullies? I couldn’t get through that long non-fiction piece by Allan Kurtzweil in the New Yorker about tracking down a bully.

    What I liked about the Watson story was its somber mood. In a way, the circumlocutions were appropriate to the story. The narrator doesn’t want to tell the story. The narrator doesn’t want to admit anything, but in fact, telling the tortured story in a tortured manner allows him to admit that bullying is not just the macho-deranged father. Bullying is also yourself.

    I am put in mind (to go off on another tangent) of the young men in Silicon Valley who think that women aren’t up to sharing their glory. That’s a version of bullying. Women are still barred from the clubhouse. When Watson writes about the boys keeping Eykelboom out of their treehouse, and then sending down one of them to beat him up – I am put in mind of women in math and science and computer science these days in the work world. Bullies and in-active bystanders are at work in that arena. Bullying is hard to write about, I think, but a terrific topic.

    So if you can remind me of great bullying stories to which I can compare the Watson story, I would be grateful.

    My electricity has been out for most of the past 48 hours – snow covered the satellite dish and the net was down – and I.had to actually take my turkey to Boston where they didn’t lose power. I am therefore totally behind on all the things you do to keep the household running. So I leave it at that.

    But I am thankful for the rich discussion.

  14. lotusgreen November 28, 2014 at 1:56 pm

    Betsy — Generous to you?! Not a chance! ;^)

    But seriously — you’ve done it again. Don’t go too far in your “admission” of having been carried away; here too, something, and I don’t even know that I could pick out what, reveals deep insight into something in this story which I miss with it directly, but get it through you.

    Something about alienation. Until the end, the story’s almost Kafka-esque: what has this child done to be so universally refused? Can something too long exposed to freezing eventually boil over?

    –Lily

    PS So sorry to hear about your power! I hope it gets smoothed out… but it occurs to me — they’re predicting nearly a week of rain here, and I think it turns to snow by the time it gets there. Stay warm!

  15. Betsy November 28, 2014 at 8:21 pm

    Lily – that’s it – “universally refused”.

  16. pauldepstein November 29, 2014 at 5:29 am

    I’m sorry that I don’t have the time or inclination to say much but I’m firmly with the naysayers here. I also wasn’t impressed. However, with regard to the writing, one of the sentences that was cited as poor writing (by minorcharacter) seems excellent to me:

    “Of course, it was common in those days for parents to hit their children, with everything from hairbrushes to toilet brushes, flyswatters, switches, bare palms, rolled newspapers, and folded belts.”

    Fine image and vivid mental picture of casual cruelty to children, and it’s relevant to the story, too.

    Paul Epstein

  17. minorcharacter November 30, 2014 at 3:41 am

    Thanks for the additional commentary. I’m not much of a contributor here but do read the blog regularly, so thanks to the head honchos and all the great commentators.

    Wanted to point out that while the sentence Paul brought up that i highlighed could be argued for relevance, its construction irked me. Every sentence — every word, in fact — must, in a short story be on trial for its existence in the story. If it is found guilty of loitering, it must be summarily and swiftly excised.

    This list instantly grated on me because it did not at that point in the story do anything but rein me in from the flow of reading to see if there was anything notable or odd or interesting about naming seven items with which parents hit their children. Why not also include wooden spoons, backscratchers, shoehorns, flashlights, boxes of extra long fireplace matches, bottles of shampoo, singlehanded garden shovels, curling irons, once-licked frozen popsicles, paintbrushes, dandy brushes, wire brushes, chimney brushes, clothes brushes, archaeology brushes, curling brushes, bottle brushes, or thawed kielbasas?

    i’m being a bit facetious here, but i’m getting to the point where the radar is so sensitive for me that I’m probably being unnecessarily hard on these pieces. I just want a writer who is getting published in TNY or equivalent to not have been seemingly lazy in the writing. I don’t even care if I don’t like the story, if it is written well. I admire a great deal of stories which I don’t really like or which don’t really move me. But laziness such as I have pointed out makes me think that no one gives a flying shart and that the publishing of fiction — to me mankind’s greatest mode of communicating consciousness — has de-elevated and become exactly as important – and fleeting – as the content of a random tweet about how the Hot Pocket eaten at noon burned the roof of a mouth of an eater in Duluth.

    God am I a buzzkill, huh?

  18. Ken November 30, 2014 at 5:51 am

    I thank you “Minor Character” for your close analysis. And you’re far from a buzz kill. I think your acid tone is funny in a good way. I basically liked this story, mostly for the suspense itself and also for odd little flickers that I spotted. Little moments, unexplained and enigmatic, that I enjoyed. For example–“The boys looked at Wayne. He was looking at Eykelboom in a way that was meant to seem very casual but was actually very intense, as if no one else were there but Eykelboom and Wayne.” Which is followed, a few paragraphs later, by “he (Wayne) was looking back at the middle brother, who felt electrified by his stare and struggled to look away.” What’s with all this staring and hidden, mysterious thoughts? Or with one of the kids wanting to watch Eykelboom’s beating? A budding S&M aficionado? Typical childhood curiosity? I also liked the part where the middle brother, after tussling with Eykelboom, “But he didn’t feel good about any of it. He was using every bit of will he had not to cry….” Is he simply in physical pain or feeling sorry for Eykelboom, if the latter why don’t we hear anything else about this at another point (except for the fact that he’s one of the two surviving characters who while drinking reminisces a la characters in Eugenides’ Virgin Suicides about the whole incident) to indicate his sensitivity about bullying someone. This little enigmatic moments intrigued me amidst what often seemed like a fairly subtext-free, overly narrative oriented boys’ story somewhat on the line of the film “Mud” with Matthew McConnaughey.

  19. brianingreenvillenc November 30, 2014 at 1:41 pm

    Hmm. It’s not entirely true that “Watson has made sure to make the origins of the Eykelboom family a mystery.” They are definitely identified — in the minds of the boys in whose collective perspective we see the story — as Yankees. You’re right that “this story is about the way our lives belie that ideal, how we suspect strangers, fear them, fence them out, pen them up, or otherwise deal roughly or even violently with what feels alien,” but the tension here is definitely between the Southern and Northern U.S. If you did not grow up in the South in the 20th century, you might not quite understand what’s involved here. “Where had they come from, the Eykelbooms? The boys suspected Indiana, Illinois. Some crude and faceless Yankee state. The Eykelbooms had emerged and emigrated from it. It was a tiny, deeply threatening invasion.” “The younger twin said, derisively, You guys, in an exaggerated Yankee accent. Then his brother said, in the same tone, Emile. He said, He’s beating the shit out of Emile right now. The three McGowen boys said nothing, their small similar mouths squinched up.” “It’s a free country, Eykelboom said then, louder. Which was such a Yankee thing to say.” This story is definitely about the tensions in the 1960s and 1970s between the old, dying order of the agricultural South (represented by old man Chandler) and the new suburbia that often brought threatening outsiders. It’s especially important that the “Yankee thing to say” is about freedom and democracy — values over whose definition the South felt itself (and to some degree still feels itself) in conflict with the rest of the country. Watson definitely captures the unsettled and unsettling mix of emotions that surrounded Southern self-definitions during the Civil Rights years.

  20. Betsy Pelz December 2, 2014 at 8:05 pm

    brianingreenvillenc – thanks for your important insights regarding north and south during the civil war years. So glad you joined us.

  21. Greg December 6, 2014 at 5:37 pm

    Betsy – Your comment that we may be born with a mean streak and it needing to be corralled has made me think……..how to best do this?…….something to reflect on……….

  22. Betsy December 7, 2014 at 10:44 pm

    Greg – Isn’t literature the description of that struggle? Isn’t, therefore, engagement with literature awareness of that struggle?

  23. Madwomaninthe attic December 26, 2014 at 8:07 pm

    How many times did you say “Eykelboom’ out loud or to yourself? How many times did you remember being in the gang, out of the gang? How many times did you think about the woods you went to as a kid, the paths you knew, the ones you didn’t? Who in your life had a father like Wayne’s, one feared and respected in the neighborhood, that automatically made that kid something of a leader? Were you ever one of those lost women, sneaking a smoke, trolling about in your nightgown? Did you hear that horse scream, that dump-truck horn play? I agree that there were some strange narrative and even textual glitches in the story, but if I were an editor, I wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot red pen. It hung together by almost preternaturally adept story-telling strings. Pace, you who teach “good writing.” Excuse me, you don’t know shit about magic.

  24. juliemcl December 27, 2014 at 9:34 am

    This story struck me deep. How unrelentingly bleak, but beautiful and true. (In my mind’s eye, the story was all washed in tones of gray.) It reminded of how terrible it can be sometimes to be a kid – especially back then it seems. Even if you aren’t being beaten every day, it seems to me that childhood, even if only sometimes, features a lack of control over one’s own life, being at the mercy of malevolent forces, being “negligible” as Watson puts it at one point. Yes, the kids in the story are “free”, but their lives are devoid of any kind of attention or familial love, and the only kind of control they can get is over another weaker kid if they get the chance. I think these kids, like the horse, are living out their lives “effectively mad with terror”. (The author peppers the story with mentions of the kids being dazed with fear as regards the various adults in their lives, and the two younger McGowen boys even had to “survive” their older brother.). Eykelboom has it especially bad (again the horse seems an apt metaphor, he “never [knowing] from which tree something might leap onto his back and sink fangs into his long, exposed neck”) but to me Ikey just represents an extreme of what they’re all going through, what we all go through unless one is particularly lucky – childhood as a sort of hazing into the monstrosities of life.

    The one light in the darkness of the story is Wayne’s asserting himself to tell the cop about Eykelboom’s father’s beatings, to tell the truth, to break through his powerlessness. But, of course, it’s too little, too late, and kids of course don’t have any power to change things anyway, which these kids know. It gives a little glimmer of hope, though, that Wayne will develop this new power within himself and be able to change the status quo. I also thought the middle McGowen kid was not too bad, he didn’t want to beat up Eykelboom or exclude him but he is at the mercy of forces bigger than him. Later, he drinks. That’s the other way one could develop.

    The story is not perfect or perfectly written. I agree with at least a few of the criticisms above. But it really reached and took hold of something true, I thought.

    Oh, and I did much appreciate Brian in Greenville’s reflections on the North/South divide and how those differences play into the story; it really adds depth. I think we Yanks are less attuned to that.

  25. lotusgreen December 27, 2014 at 12:13 pm

    Julie — What a helpful and compassionate response. Funny you should mention appreciating the story’s gray wash; in my initial comments I credited the same thing for my dislike of it. (Are you a Synaesthete too?)

    But you have reassembled the story for me into a tableau of fear, tying together elements that hadn’t seemed to fit, somehow, before. Your interpretation rings true, and sad.

    Thank you.

  26. juliemcl December 27, 2014 at 7:44 pm

    Hi Lily (may I call you that, too?). I’m not a synesthete, but I do recall thinking upon finishing that it was gray-gray-gray and that it was quite possibly the most depressing story in the history of depressing stories I have read in TNY, but that there was something more to it than that because I felt it in my bones. I’m so glad I got a chance to write a little bit about it above to clarify my thoughts and that what I said made sense to you.

  27. lotusgreen December 27, 2014 at 9:29 pm

    Yes please, do call me Lily. Everyone. “Lotusgreen” came about, long story, decades ago and there’s no way really to let that name go. For the kind of conversation that goes on here, though, I find myself wishing for less distance from reality.

    Signed,

    Lily

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