“Herman Melville, Volume 1”
by Victor Lodato
from the March 27, 2017 issue of The New Yorker

A couple of weeks ago, Victor Lodato’s second novel, Edgar and Lucy was published. A few days ago, his short story “The Tenant” was shortlisted for the £30,000 Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award. It’s been a good month for Lodato, and now we get some more of his fiction in The New Yorker. A couple of Lodato’s stories have shown up in The New Yorker over the past few years and we’ve liked them a lot (you can read our responses to “P.E.” here and to “Jack, July” here).

From Lodato’s interview with Cressida Leyshon (here), it appears that this is a story about a young couple drifting around Oregon. “Herman Melville, Volume 1” is the title of a hefty book they’re carrying in a backpack. I’m definitely interested to see how his contemporary exploration of drifters ties in with Herman Melville and, I hope, Moby-Dick.

Please join in the conversation about this story and leave your thoughts below!

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By | 2017-05-24T21:28:11+00:00 March 20th, 2017|Categories: New Yorker Fiction, Victor Lodato|Tags: |11 Comments

11 Comments

  1. David March 20, 2017 at 9:28 pm

    I found that moment to moment I quite liked the writing of this story. He is very good at giving the reader a clear picture of the the characters, locations, events, emotions. But as a story there was not much there there. The character of the older woman seems utterly contrived and unbelievable – the sort of person you only meet in stories. The menacing man seemed too one-dimensional and too familiar – little more than a plot device.
    .
    I found the interview frustrating in ways that a lot of author interviews are. He makes it sound like the way he writes he has no idea what he wants to write about or why and hopes something interesting will happen along the way as he puts words on the page. But that seems to be the perfect approach to get exactly what this story (and, frankly, too many stories in The New Yorker) gives us. It’s like watching actors who have spent a lot of time developing their characters try to improvise a scene. The details might be quite skillfully done, but the big picture has too many problems and inadequacies.
    .
    I had read “Jack, July” previously and recall not liking it very much. This story was better, but still a lot less than I want or expect. Maybe next time he will, as he writes, stumble on a story worth telling. Or better yet, he will wait until he has some idea why he is writing before he starts.

  2. Roger March 23, 2017 at 9:23 pm

    I didn’t see much here to distinguish this from so many other stories about characters living out on the street, basically broke. Also, something seemed off about this, especially in terms of place. I think the interview says the story is set in Oregon, but I didn’t catch that in the text, including after doing a control-f search for “Oregon.” Maybe I missed it? Beyond that, there was at least one odd word choice – “rubbish.” The rescuer-woman asks the main character if she has been eating “rubbish,” and the word is later used by the narrator as well. Now, I’ve never been to Oregon but believe that, as in the rest of America, the word used there is “garbage,” not “rubbish.” This made me wonder if the story was set outside the United States, till the interview disabused me of that.

    I Googled Lodato and learned that, like me, he grew up in New Jersey. (Weirdly, his website’s bio doesn’t say where in New Jersey he lived – not even what exit! Yet it’s very specific in noting that he subsequently lived in Ashland, Oregon and Tuscon, Arizona. Hey Victor, how about showing a little respect for those Jersey roots by giving us some specificity?)

    But I digress – I just meant to add that in New Jersey, people don’t say “rubbish” either. The use of the word added an air of inauthenticity to the story, and I can’t figure out why Lodato would want to do that….

  3. David March 24, 2017 at 12:24 am

    Good to see you back again, Roger. About the setting, the location is more implied than stated outright. We are told early on that she got her backpack in Portland and that a few weeks earlier they had been in Bandon Oregon, but the setting for the story is just described as “a pretty little town” without a name or state mentioned. There is also a reference to the town’s park sometimes having “kids from California” and “hikers from the Pacific Crest Trail”. Since that implies that this is not California and the trail runs through Washington, Oregon, and California, it seems to narrow the location down to one of the Pacific Northwest states. Later in the story she speculates that Evan has gone south, probably to California, so Washington or Oregon seem to be indicated.
    .
    I also was puzzled by the use of the word “rubbish”. In fact, it prompted me to google Lodato to find out if I was mistaken about his nationality. Even if the word is commonly used in Oregon (or Tuscon for that matter) it still seems more a distraction than anything. Very peculiar.

  4. Dan March 27, 2017 at 2:07 pm

    I haven’t posted anything in a long time, so I hope the regulars will forgive my butting in. I completely agree with everything above. I was also thrown off by “rubbish,” looked for contextual clues to determine where the action was supposed to be taking place, and googled Lodato to try to figure out if he was British. But there’s a weird sort of BrE-love in the New Yorker which leads the editors to prefer “got” to “gotten” for the past participle of “get”. This grates on me every time.

    I also agree that the menacing stranger seemed too much like a plot device, and I found the predatory older lesbian archaic and offensive.

  5. Roger March 27, 2017 at 10:16 pm

    David, thanks for pointing out those Oregon indicators. I missed them. Probably distracted by the whole “rubbish” thing.

  6. Greg April 1, 2017 at 6:21 pm

    I love this story because it has so much heart. Now I can’t wait to read Victor’s second novel, “Edgar and Lucy”!

    The following four parts I found especially heart breaking:

    “Anyway, between the two of them it’s not just about the sex. Promises have been made. Promises that are easier to believe when she’s clean.”

    “But what you have to understand is it’s not uncommon for a person to miss, the first time. His hands were probably shaking.”

    “She can’t help but think of her father. The white putty plugging the hole in the wall. Maybe they put something similar in his skull – who knows. After they removed his body from the bedroom, she never saw it again. And the coffin had been closed.”

    “She’s always known he was crazy, but she never expected something like this. Not from the boy who stayed facing her after they fucked, gently thumbing her eyebrows as if trying to remove a smudge.”

  7. madwomanintheattic April 9, 2017 at 4:42 pm

    Thank you Greg for noting the positives here. I agree that the woman with the braids seemed less than believable, but the painful vulnerability of the young woman and her awful predicament made up for it: I totally believed, and the Oregon setting was spot on, I am not familiar with Lodato’s writing, but I see in it something that also characterizes that of Curtis Sittenfeld; primary characters masterfully developed, plot not so much.

  8. Laurel April 12, 2017 at 2:51 pm

    Hey, I hope I’m not intruding — just horning in on this discussion. I just read this story and couldn’t put it down. I guess I had some questions because I googled it. But I did find it all too believable, including the woman who took her in. Really good detail in this story, though a little cryptic in some places. But he did a good job of setting up the woman, with the earlier observation about people who give you something keep it to what they think you deserve, then later her comment “Use the brown towel.”

    I guess the outcome is the girl has gotten much tougher? I was just really hoping for something more positive for her. And I wish the attempted assault was only a device. The writer did a really good job of illustrating the vulnerability of someone in her position through all the accumulation of detail and it made the bear metaphor apt. That part did not strike me as contrived. The woman showing up was kind of contrived, except as it turned out she had problems herself. A male following the girl would have given it away sooner. The “rubbish” comment — might have been a character thing, something an uptight woman would say. That’s how I took it. I’m certainly willing to fill in the blanks for the writer, so he roped me in ;)

    For what it’s worth, I was thinking Carmel when he described the town.

  9. Greg April 12, 2017 at 10:26 pm

    Thank you Laurel for this post….you have made me love this story all over again!

  10. Ken June 11, 2017 at 3:29 am

    Way late, i enter but would like to commend the story for its respectful and ambiguous portrait of a troubled character and her situation. The style flows very well and the contrivances noted by others, did not seem so to me although upon reading their comments perhaps I see their point, but, my point–the style of the story was so smooth I didn’t question the plausibility of the menacing man and the older, gay woman. In fact, is the older lesbian necessarily predatory? Maybe a bit–but are all who help out supposed to be 100% saint? Can’t there be a certain feeling of entitlement and also a desire to help?

  11. Greg June 13, 2017 at 6:30 pm

    Good points to think about Ken!

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