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.
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.