“The Poltroon Husband”
by Joseph O’Neill
from the March 12, 2018 issue of The New Yorker

Inspired by Henry James, Joseph O’Neill gives us a tale about a cowardly husband who lets his wife investigate a mysterious noise in the night time. This story sounds better than the last few O’Neill stories that have appeared, “Pardon Edward Snowden” (here) and “The Sinking of the Houston” (here).

O’Neill has written several short stories lately, and so it’s unsurprising to hear he has a collection of stories — Good Trouble — coming out in June. This will be his first.

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By |2018-03-05T19:30:28-04:00March 5th, 2018|Categories: Joseph O'Neill, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |15 Comments


  1. David March 5, 2018 at 8:42 pm

    Oh boy. O’Neill is back. Last time, commenting on “The Sinking of the Houston” (and, more specifically, the author interview that came with the story) I wrote, “O’Neill is an idiot. I don’t need to hear any more of his pointless stories.” I also was inspired to make a resolution (that I have kept!) that “In the future I am going to read the author interview first and if the author has the audacity to tell us that he or she does not know what is going on in the story or why it is worth reading, then I’ll pass.”
    Well, now. So I did read the author interview and I am encouraged that the story will be better than the last one. It sounds like leeching off of James might help him. I have not read the story yet and probably won’t for a few days (this time it’s only 50% Trevor’s fault :-) But I do plan to … unless it gets trashed in the comments here before I get around to it….

  2. Sean H March 6, 2018 at 7:18 am

    Witty but not merely effervescent, a highly applaudable little effort here from O’Neill. The tone is just about perfectly calibrated, a light but moody engagement with gender, marriage, and a neo-bohemian bourgeois conflation of the urban and the natural, the civilized and the untamed, the ephemeral and the timeless. In a brief and fast-moving story, O’Neill three-dimensionalizes his characters expertly. The audience knows both the title husband and Jayne (…his wife, very Jetsons there), and also the setting, quite well by story’s end. The plot is minimal, but effective. The key word here is paradox, “a wonderfully private, precious urban place.” Skunks, simultaneously both black and white, are the animal of note. And the patchwork house made of shipping containers, with its sense-disorienting “zones,” is well-evoked and memorable.

    The scenario of a potential home invader and the wife being the one who goes downstairs to investigate while, from her POV, her cowardly husband of the title stays in bed, and yet from his POV he is victimized by a seismic medical condition, creates wonderful story-long tension. O’Neill even manages the feat of interesting and pointed italics usage.

    The debate delayed so long it dissipates is a wonderful choice as well. The reader expects a traditional having-it-out couples’ argument but never gets one. Instead, we get passive aggression and tide biding, a husband conspiring to play the long game to win back his status from emasculation. The purchasing of a competing (and Hefnerian) dressing gown (and the instantiation of the themes of imitation and inversion, much like how she only likes steak if he cooks it) and the husband’s self-congratulatory “I chose well” were downright hilarious, as were his continued ways of formulating phrases to describe his temporary state of frozenness. This is a battle, almost like a stage play. She’s withholding something from him and he’s withholding something from her. The paradox of the lines “It must be said: I’m furious. ‘Can I get you anything else?’ I say. ‘A glass of milk.’’” is a great deadpan, as is the three-month leap forward in time.

    I also quite relished the lines about how “even though it may have been nothing and certainly came to nothing” and the husband’s eagerness to know mixed with a refusal to ask. This provides real, earned drama, as does his revelation that his wife essentially saved him from committing suicide and yet he has never, ever told her this. Talk about power dynamics given subtle and literary expression. Well done.

    The Flagstaff setting with its dark skies ordinances pays off in the end, and the moment of the wife’s professed fearlessness, “I refuse to live like a poltroon,” inspires a clever etymological investigation and admission from the husband. His venturing into the woods/copse at the end is an inspired choice, in keeping with paradoxes, as is the riff about starlight and time. This is a story about short-term vs. long-term, about the life-long back-and-forth that matrimony elicits. The contrast of the “enchanting rectangle of warm yellow light” in the window standing out amidst the dark and the trees is a well-conjured image near the story’s conclusion, as is the phrase “my adventure in the silver forest” (a wonderful mix of “lumberjack”/Jack London and a childish, almost fairy-tale-like word choice). How she refers to him as “Love” is also telling, as of course are his rather self-aggrandizing closing lines, a recapturing of what to him is the upper hand: power, mobility, stasis by choice, and masculinity, with Jayne as the vulnerable and, from his POV anyway, “worried” wife literally calling him to come inside, back into the abode.

    A lively tale well told, this one.

    (This is, BTW, a very Jerry and Beth Smith couple, for those fans of TV’s Rick & Morty, another fine satire of the contemporary American marriage.)

  3. pauldepstein March 9, 2018 at 6:59 pm

    Very similar to John Cheever’s The Wrysons, which was also originally published by the New Yorker. I wonder whether the influence is conscious or not. As often for a New Yorker story, it’s unclear what the story means and each reader would have a different interpretation.

    Paul Epstein

  4. David March 9, 2018 at 8:52 pm

    I have no real complaints about this story, but it’s nothing special. Maybe I have been spoiled a bit by some of the Mookse Madness stories, but I still think this is merely average. One problem I had with the story is the husband is a type of person I dislike. I find him quite annoying, which got in the way of enjoying the story. But this character is the way he is by design, so it is to O’Neill’s credit that he makes him seem real. Maybe too real for me. Since the story really is, in the end, about him and what sort of person he is, I was left without much to find appealing. But it’s not bad.

  5. Seth M Guggenheim March 10, 2018 at 2:43 pm

    Brilliant review, Sean H! It really illuminated the story for me. Thanks!

  6. Ellen G March 13, 2018 at 2:24 pm

    Agree with Seth. Sean’s review was very helpful.

  7. Greg March 18, 2018 at 2:31 pm

    Sean – We are very fortunate to have you as a regular commenter in this TNY space. I read your meticulous review three times and the following part really framed the story for me:

    “In a brief and fast-moving story, O’Neill three-dimensionalizes his characters expertly. The audience knows both the title husband and Jayne (…his wife, very Jetsons there), and also the setting, quite well by story’s end. The plot is minimal, but effective. The key word here is paradox, “a wonderfully private, precious urban place.” Skunks, simultaneously both black and white, are the animal of note. And the patchwork house made of shipping containers, with its sense-disorienting “zones,” is well-evoked and memorable.”

    David – I was surprised to see that you were okay with the author interview! Since you detest when writers claim they don’t control where their stories take them, why didn’t the following author’s thoughts turn you off:

    “I tried to banish my own intentions, too, and open myself up as much as possible to the dream logic of the premise. To use your metaphor, the initial spur of intent gets the horse going. After that, you loosen the reins, let the beast leap the ditches, and try not to fall off.”

    Lastly, I found the following passage from the story very touching:

    “It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve kept something from her. I’ve never told her that, when she and I first met, I had reached a point in my life when it would comfort me to look around a room and figure out exactly how I might hang myself. Jayne is my rescuer from all of that.”

  8. David March 18, 2018 at 4:41 pm

    Greg, you are right in identifying a passage from the interview that might have caused me pause. I don’t expect O’Neill will ever rid himself entirely of the idea that stories write themselves and gee whiz, he doesn’t know what any of it means, but there are other parts of the interview that were reassuring at least about this story. First, that it started from a concrete idea from James: The story of a husband who acts cowardly and must deal with the consequences of that. This gives him a goal and an outer shape to the story. Second, he says, “I immediately identified with the coward. I also saw his yellowness as the stuff of comedy and sympathy.” So he has a goal he set to portray the man as funny and an object of sympathy.
    Third, he says of the husband, “He has to live with himself—with the fact that he failed to show the battlefield bravery that is vestigially expected of men, even those in a progressive marriage, such as that of the narrator and his wife, Jayne. His bravery or cowardice isn’t simply a matter of his masculine adequacy, though. It has to do with his feelings for his wife and their mysterious limits.” This says to me he has a clear idea of who the husband is and how he wants the reader to see him. He’s not really just letting the character write himself (whatever the hell that even means!).
    Whether or not the story does any of the things he wants it to do is, of course, a matter for readers to decide. But at least he has a goal in mind in writing this and so has some sort of measuring stick to use to know when he’s done and if he thinks he has achieved that goal. If somewhere along the way to getting there he decides to just write without thinking or trying to direct things, that’s ok too. But only so long as he then examines what he wrote to see if anything worth keeping came of it. Last time he seemed to say “I don’t know if this is something or nothing. Here. You read it and see if it’s crap or not.” This time he seemed to take more of an interest in at least trying to do better than that.

  9. Greg March 19, 2018 at 10:41 pm

    Thanks David for sharing your thinking process….I found you to be generous…..and I wonder whether the author read and remembered your comments from his last story / interview and doubled down this time by giving the horse riding metaphor….hmm…….

  10. Sean H March 20, 2018 at 9:50 pm

    Just a quick question to David. Why does it vex you so when an author says he has no idea where a story or character is going to lead him? Or that the artist him/herself has little idea whether they’ve created a “something” or a “nothing”? Plenty of creative people aren’t goal-oriented. Aren’t different routes/processes part of the variety of artistic temperament?
    For example, yes, there are brilliant guitarists who think through every note in a piece of music. They can read music. They can name chords and progressions and time signatures. They think through ahead of time what they want their song/playing to sound like at the end. Other people just pick up the guitar and noodle around and something beautiful, weird, original, and/or amazing comes out. Or in film, some directors storyboard everything, some just compile a bunch of stuff together hoping for “happy accidents” and then they (or someone else) edit it into a finished film. There’s usually some editing involved in the narrative literary arts as well, but not always by the author. I’m thinking of Kerouac’s automatic writing and Burroughs’ cut-up technique, just to name a couple from 20th C. American lit that produced at least two massively canonical/influential works (On the Road & Naked Lunch). Not to mention the many brilliant artists and writers who are high out of their minds on drugs and not “thinking/planning” anything at all when they create.
    It just seems to be a running critique of yours and I’m wonder why you take that POV.

  11. Larry Bone March 21, 2018 at 5:25 pm

    This O’Neill short story was fun to read in a more “old school” kind of way. You knew this guy was older because of how he uses words some people have to look up to explain and justify his cowardice. He reminded me of how some expert elites cover over their failings by using learned intellectual diagnosis terms like “oneiric paralysis” to make anything they do or fail to do acceptable. Plus he expresses himself in past tense while Jayne speaks in present tense. She’s living life in now and he’s waiting to die or seems like he is in the later stages of life. O’Neill tells us very little about Jayne other then that she is an artist and he is a consultant (sells valuable accumulated wisdom probably from the past). Is Jayne a movie star hot looking older babe who tolerates this guy and marriage to him out of convenience? And does she go downstairs and cheat on him to take a “break” from what she has to put up with in him? To have no actual better explanation of their relationship is unsatisfying because to some readers to be teased by a possibility never fully realized disappoints a little except if the reader prefers riddles or mysteries. I agree not enough authorial control is not always bad. Author is god and characters are the created like parents with young children. The whole reason for author control is so the reader is not thrown out of the story by what a character says or does or something that jeopardizes the coherence of the story, the action or the narrative flow. Too much or must always be full author control reminds me of a holding cell at a jail where the author is the jailer and all the characters/prisoners are totally under his control. Also could the author be trying to create a kind of character he knows actually exists but does not know a whole lot about that kind of person? It’s also sort of the always write what you know about and never about what you don’t know anything about rule. There’s room for both in short stories. Actors and jazz artists go off on an out of control binge in a performance or they improvise extensively in a particular moment. Sometimes it results in something great sometimes not. I think O’Neill’s story is a great short story glimpse or snapshot of a particular kind of guy. A novel has more time to find out more about him and more about the other characters and what one learns in how they play off one another. The strength of O’Neill’s story is that this guy gets our attention because of how he seems real and is very specifically presented. He is static and boring but fictionally details his state of mind in an interesting and specificly understandable way.

  12. Greg March 21, 2018 at 10:48 pm

    Great review Larry….and you got me thinking with this:

    “Is Jayne a movie star hot looking older babe who tolerates this guy and marriage to him out of convenience? And does she go downstairs and cheat on him to take a “break” from what she has to put up with in him?”

  13. Ken March 23, 2018 at 3:08 am

    I also sensed a certain playful pleasure from the main character (and perhaps O’Neill) in enjoying his thoughts, in role-playing, in toying with words/phrases and in observing the physical world. All of this conveyed with great wit and style.

  14. mehbe March 24, 2018 at 7:55 pm

    Have you ever had one of those lethally refreshing and exquisitely constructed cocktails where the components are so beautifully and artfully balanced, and the drinking of it is such a pleasure to the senses, that you forget there is any alcohol involved, and without quite knowing how you got there, you become unexpectedly intoxicated?

    This story was like one of those, for me. You bet I’d like another.

  15. Greg March 25, 2018 at 10:44 am

    WOW Mehbe – Your analogy of this story to a deliciously intoxicating cocktail is brilliantly apt!

    Thank you for sharing how exquisitely constructed literature, where the components are so beautifully and artfully balanced, makes you feel.

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