If this story were not included in a collection written by Alice Munro, I would not have suspected — until perhaps the very last paragraph — that it was a story by Alice Munro. It is not bad, just quite different in structure and tone and in how it holds on to a mystery that it, in the end, delights in sharing. It is a complicated story that sorts through a variety of layers and connections, but the way it goes about its business strikes me as much more conventional than a typical Alice Munro story. It seems more gleeful and winking in its tricks. But let’s take “Pictures of the Ice” as its own thing and see what it’s going about.
When the story begins, we hear — from an omniscient narrator — about a man’s imminent death:
Three weeks before he died — drowned in a boating accident in a lake whose name nobody had heard him mention — Austin Cobbett stood deep in the clasp of a three-way mirror in Crawford’s Men’s Wear, in Logan, looking at himself in a burgundy sports shirt and a pair of cream, brown, and burgundy plaid pants. Both permanent press.
Austin Cobbett is about seventy. His wife died a year ago, and he has since left — been partially pushed out, it should be said — of his job as the minister at the United Church. However, rather than sit back and let his life taper down, he’s starting a new life. Indeed, when a member of the community comes in to Crawford’s, he doesn’t recognize that Austin is the man looking at the mirrors and tells a tasteless joke. Where Austin may have chastised the man in the past, on this day he laughs and says, “That’s rich.” Yes, Austin is not dying but is being reborn. He’s at Crawford’s getting a new skin because in a few weeks he’s off to Hawaii to marry a woman he and his departed wife met while on a retreat a few years prior.
After this opening, Munro lays more pieces on the table, in particular we meet Karin, a young divorcee who first helped nurse Austin’s wife and has since helped Austin with whatever other needs he had. Right now, those needs are packing up the old house, selling the stuff, and getting the money to Lazarus House, a charity Austin set up years before. Most of this story is told while closely following Karin.
Karin’s ex-husband Brent has been the cause of much of Karin’s cynicism and bitterness. While they were married, he was a drunk; indeed, he was drunk when their baby boy died, something neither he nor Karin knew quite how to deal with. For his part, though, Brent quit the drink and went for religion. The man who helped him through this period was Austin, but over time Austin’s kind and quiet manner was upended and, of all things, Brent took over Lazarus House and helped install the next, more fashionable, minister.
Rebirths and new starts, all told while closely following a woman who is still grieving the very real and permanent death of a child and whose own life shows no promise of change. The pieces are on the table early on, and now Munro moves them around in an interesting pattern, making us wonder just what leads to Austin’s death and just what is going to happen to the now central character, Karin.
“Pictures of the Ice” is, more than most of Munro’s stories, a plotted narrative with touching quiet and a dramatic, perhaps surprising — unless you catch the clues early on that Austin’s new skin doesn’t quite fit — conclusion. But, in true Munro fashion, it doesn’t end with closure but rather with a new opening that reveals heretofore unknown depths to Austin’s friendship with Karin, how he may not have been preparing for a new life in at all the way he led everyone to believe — everyone but Karin, who caught on in the end:
She thinks now that he knew. Right at the last he knew that she’d caught on to him, she understood what he was up to. No matter how alone you are, and how tricky and determined, don’t you need one person to know? She could be the one for him. Each of them knew what the other was up to, and didn’t let on, and that was a link beyond the usual. Every time she thinks of it, she feels approved of — a most unexpected thing.
And, thus, Austin manages to help Karin get a new start in life.
“Pictures of the Ice” was not published in The New Yorker. The subject matter — the old minister — may have seemed a little provincial for their audience. But it is an important story and an interesting one.
Austin Cobbett is a retired, widowed minister who has been put out to pasture by his church, discarded by his foundation, Lazarus House, and widowed by the death of his wife. Austin has a “careful quiet kind of religion” when people were looking for a “stricter, more ferocious kind of Christianity.” He was the kind of guy whose meaning in life was to help others. “Austin had a reputation for knowing how to deal with people who were in a desperate way.” He had a touch for that kind of thing. Austin was always looking for someone to help, although we get the sense that neither his wife nor his kids were the ones he helped.
Karin and Brent were a young couple who had gotten in a desperate way. Brent was a heavy drinker (and so was Karin). Even before their baby died of meningitis (and neglect), Austin had been called to intervene with Brent. Brent ends up moving into Lazarus House, where Austin tried to bring people back to life. But then, of all things, Brent gets all holier than Austin and “there was no way he could stop himself from going for more.”
And soon enough he burst out of Austin’s hold and took a good part of the church with him. A lot of people had wanted that loosening: more noise and praying and singing and not so much quiet talking; they’d been wanting it for a long while.
(Actually, it sounds like the United States, right now in 2017.)
Anyway, where we come in, Austin is getting ready to fly to Hawaii where he is going to marry someone he and his wife met on retreat. Karin, Brent’s wife, has been working for him for some time, at first nursing his wife, and then staying on to be the housekeeper. Karin had been in a bad way as well as Brent. She’d been consumed by rage at Brent for his part in the baby’s death, and it was obvious when Austin took her in.
Austin himself is a skinny old coot, getting skinnier by the day. It probably is time to retire.
What strikes me is this: Austin says “there’s more than one way to love God.” He goes on to say that “taking pleasure in the world is surely one of them.”
When the story begins, we hear him telling various people about moving to Hawaii and getting married. But — he’s not going to Hawaii; he’s going to Shaft Lake, way up north. Maybe that story about a wedding and Hawaii was a kind of dream, a kind of wish-fulfillment. He’s actually taken a job as a minister, we learn late in the story, and he intends to live in a trailer. And when he gets there, he drowns in the lake. The reader doesn’t know anything about what happened: whether it was an accident, or whether he was alone, or whether it was a suicide. He had left behind some pictures of the early ice on the river. He’d told Karin to send them to him — later — after he got settled.
It’s not clear at all what happened. But it is clear that his kids were too busy to drop in on him and didn’t want any of his things, so that Karin didn’t feel so bad about stealing some of them.
She thinks he knew. Right at the last he knew that she’d caught on to him, she understood what he was up to. No matter how alone you are, and how tricky and determined, don’t you need one person to know? She could be the one for him. Each of them knew what the other was up to, and didn’t let on, and that was a link beyond the usual. Every time she thinks of it, she feels approved of — a most unexpected thing.
Austin was his own person. Right at the end, he had his hand out to Brent and Karin. And maybe to the people of Shaft Lake, too. Or maybe not. We don’t know. But we do know this: “there’s more than one way to love God.”
The story is followed by “Goodness and Mercy.” Both Austin and Bugsy were people who served the world first, and then, maybe, their families. It’s a tough life, being a public person, being known, being an artist, or, conversely, being a saint. It’s hard on the kids. Both Bugsy and Austin die, both of them running a kind of charade at the end.
So what’s that about the “pictures of the ice”? Was that something to do together with Karin? Something for her to remember him by? The grandeur of it? The shared memory of the excursion?
Does the ice suggest the natural aging and changing of all things? Is it also a suggestion of the ice between him and his kids? And his wife? Does the ice represent the church itself, before Brent brought it back to life? Was it just nature, doing its thing, bringing some early ice that would have melted by the time the pictures were developed, a natural ending to a natural event? Does the ice represent constant change but essential essence?
Just as water can have different forms and still be of the same essence, so can the ministry, or compassion, or the story of a ministry, or the story of compassion.
It’s important that he leaves the pictures to be developed at the store and picked up by Karin. We don’t know exactly how they came out. This is a representation of life itself: that we don’t really know how it’s going to come out, but we do want, as Karin notes, someone else to “see how it comes out.”
The real question of the story is what has happened to Austin. The story starts with a ruse; Austin is buying clothes for a new life, clothes completely unsuitable for the new life he has actually chosen: a ministry at Shafts Lake. The story may have also ended with a ruse. Austen is reportedly drowned; maybe his body will rise in the spring, thinks Karin. Maybe they will have proof. Maybe he has only changed costumes.
Munro is a writer in continual debate with religion. She inquires of compassion and asks if it can be found in the church. In “Apples and Oranges” Murray rejects the ministry, having found his faith suddenly dead. Early in her writing, in “Age of Faith,” she rejects conventional church as reliable. But portraits of compassion persist throughout. Austin is a pointed example. That the name is derived from Augustine is significant.
Augustine of Hippo said:
What does love look like? It has the hands to help others. It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has eyes to see misery and want. It has the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men. That is what love looks like.
That is what Austin, the old fool, looks like.
Just to mess with our heads, Munro and Austin pose us the problem of whether Austin’s body will rise again. It matters not, actually. Austin had the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men and women. That is what counts. All else is mystery.
Austin’s goodness is a kind of a curse. He’s not so much a church functionary as a natural born savior. “There’s more than one way to love God.”