“I Walk Between the Raindrops”
by T. Coraghessan Boyle
from the July 30, 2018 issue of The New Yorker

This week The New Yorker brings us another story from one of the preeminent short story writers of the last — gulp! — forty years (that’s right, Boyle’s first collection, Descent of Man was published in 1979). I think Boyle is a great writer, and I usually am pulled deeply into his work, yet I don’t think I’ve ever quite connected with it. I don’t think I’m alone based on the discussions Boyle’s work has inspired here at The Mookse and the Gripes.

Nevertheless, I was excited to see his name pop up when I looked at what the magazine was offering this week. I still find his work, at the very least, interesting and usually fun, even if it doesn’t hit me in any deeper way. And that’s okay! And . . . perhaps it will be different this time!

“I Walk Between the Raindrops” certainly starts with Boyle’s strengths: sentences that roll forward, pulling you with them; a narrative voice you could listen to for hours, in part because he’s a bit off; an interesting setting that is not somewhere in New York City. Here are the first two paragraphs:

VALENTINE’S DAY

This past Valentine’s Day, I was in Kingman, Arizona, with my wife, Nola, staying in the Motel 6 there, just off the I-40. You might not think of Kingman as a prime location for a romantic getaway (who would?), but Nola and I have been married for fifteen years now, and romance is just part of the continuum — sometimes it blows hot, sometimes cold, and we certainly don’t need a special day or place for it. We’re not sentimentalists. We don’t exchange heart-shaped boxes of chocolates or glossy cards with manufactured endearments inside, and we don’t go around kissing in public or saying “I love you” twenty times a day. (To my mind, couples like that are always suspect — really, who are they trying to fool?) Besides which, we were there to pay a visit to Nola’s father, who’s in his eighties and living in a trailer park a mile down the road from the motel, which made it convenient not only for seeing him but for strolling into Old Town, where there are a handful of bars and restaurants and the junk shops my wife loves to frequent, looking for bargains.

Were we slumming? Yes, sure. We could have stayed anywhere we liked, but this — at least when we’re in Kingman — is what we like, and if it’s not ideal, at least it’s different. The local police creep through the parking lot in the small hours, running license plates, and once in a while you’ll wake to them handcuffing somebody outside one of the rooms, which is not a sight we see every day back in California. Plus, there are a couple of lean white bums living in the wash just behind the place, and they sometimes give me a start, looming up out of the darkness when I step outside at night for a breath of air, but nothing’s ever happened, not even a request for spare change or a cigarette.

From Boyle’s interview with Deborah Treisman (here), it appears this story will have four subplots, and they do make me wonder if I’ll also see some of the things I don’t care for in Boyle’s fiction, things that can make the stories feel a bit half-baked in terms of theme.

I’m anxious to see how the story plays out, though, and anxious to read your thoughts! Feel free to share them below!

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By |2018-07-23T13:10:36+00:00July 23rd, 2018|Categories: New Yorker Fiction, T. Coraghessan Boyle|Tags: |9 Comments

9 Comments

  1. Larry Bone July 24, 2018 at 8:38 pm

    This story is very loose, unfocused and some readers might think it shambles along aimlessly until the end. But the rock-jazz fusion group “Steely Dan” has a song called, “Walking Between the Raindrops.” It has a jaunty foward moving beat like the protagonist of this story telling every little bit of the trip to Kingman, Arizona and what it brings to mind.

    Boyle has the knack of making almost every word count and uses factual and fictional detail(s) to make his story credible and assert and deftly validate the truth of his observations. So this story is fun to read for the very precise strangeness it has that gives it a reality is stranger than fiction kind of quality.

    But is difficult to truly connect with this story because it seems existential in that there is no meaning or significance to anything that happens other than the sequence or progression of what happens and what it stirs up in the protagonist’s mind. Nothing is of consequence and a person can even be taken over by what he or she is trying to prevent.

    There is a pervasive ennui that is fun to read but difficult to have any kind of affiity for. Still, it is very well written and the oddity of some possible real-time events is well-observed.

  2. Sean H July 25, 2018 at 2:36 am

    Boyle’s trademark themes and subjects are all over this one: sentimentalism vs. reality, the homeless, class issues in America, the randomness of life, the smallness of humans confronted with big, bad nature. The narrator and his wife are pretty viciously satirized herein and deservedly so. Lucky people, the “blessed,” the slightly dim but think they’re smart types, good looking but vacuous, the bourgeoisie; this is the narrator and Nola.

    I also like that the story works as a depiction of the contemporary US while also being heavily invested in the past, in the universal and eternal nature of the issues it addresses (as conveyed early on via the symbols of a Mexican restaurant that is part of a defunct hotel, along with the passing of trains). The narrator as a guy who visits financial forums online and admits he’s a “weak and ashamed” white-guilt liberal “pussy” is pretty instantly recognizable. Even his name, Brandon, is right on the money.

    Boyle inserts the proper story beats, as craft has never been his problem. He’s better off in the short story form than the novel. He knows when and how to insert conflict (the invasion of the protagonist’s personal space by a wastrel/”crazy lady”). Loved the description of her as “A woman with God knew what kind of mental Ferris wheel spinning around in her head.” We’ve all been assailed by such mentally disturbed characters so it’s instantly relatable. There’s also a nice bit of foreshadowing of the story’s conclusion when the narrator is desperately waiting for his wife to return from her bargain hunting to “save” him. His enjoyment of the Valentine’s Day festivities — “And it was real and honest and beautiful” — was my first LOL moment of the story, as it painted him as just the type of simple sentimentalist he claimed not to be.

    Brandon and Nola are, of course, the kinds of people whose house doesn’t get damaged in the mudslides, who will blithely founder through life without ever becoming victims. The theme of guilt is spelled out concretely, then more humor with the Kurosawa box set. More trains too. The very minor drama of a dead bear is quickly blown up into a “story.” What Boyle is on about here is how life, no matter what class you’re in, is really just a random and meaningless accrual of various stories that you share at dinner parties (or at work, or outside the bodega, or at your weekly poker game, or while riding the subway; whatever the norms are for your class).

    The suicide-prevention hotline was full-on dark humor; uproarious. The irony of a guy named Blake who volunteers to answer the phones (in a suit & tie) and “save” people from suicide instead becoming infected/convinced by one of the callers to kill himself is hilarious. To Nola of course, her volunteerism is not dramatic at all, it’s just you listen for an hour or two and then tell them to call a mental health professional or 911. The theme of honesty starts to become more apparent as well. Brandon’s rebuff of Nola’s “It could have been us” is also right on the money.

    The playing matchmaker for their fat friends section is also pretty damn funny. Lots of concise writing, with Boyle unpacking the narrator’s first wife Ursula (LOL!) really efficiently. There’s even a meta moment where Boyle nods to “the kind of sharp, ironic humor I savor–and miss out here in California.” Like his narrator, Boyle is a New Yorker moved west to Cali. (Unlike his narrator, Boyle is notably ugly, but shows great insight and skill as a writer getting into the head of a pretty boy) The stuff about how some people are doomed, born losers, is a recurring theme in Boyle’s work as well. He really understands social Darwinism and determinism (“It was a perfect moment, and it was as if we’d been positioned here by some unseen hand to enjoy it.”) and hints at the religiosity of the ending well. The adverb “balefully” is used really well in this section also, proof that there is such a thing as a useful adverb. The ending of this section is downright Seinfeldian, as is the beginning of the final section where Serena essentially says “You think you’re better than me!” to the narrator.

    Brandon already knows Serena is going to be a story he tells at parties, and he has wisely withheld a key detail (stories need secrets), and in this case having it also be a suicide (a failed suicide attempt, actually, the uber-“loser” who can’t even get killing themselves right) really draws the story together well. His description of the bartender is finely wrought also. Ending with the desire for salvation (instead of, say, Nola having a heart attack) is an interesting writerly choice. The story becomes more parable-like, and telegraphs out in an attempt to make the reader confront “big ideas” about loneliness, desperation, despair, and mental illness.

  3. Larry Bone July 25, 2018 at 8:00 am

    Sean,
    Thanks for your comprehensive quantification and detailing of the thematic structure of this story that explains what might not be easily picked up. A large segment of our society identifies with an existential outlook on life and how it often seems like the only rational explaination of when things go really bad and all the horrors visited on everyone everyday as anyone can see on CNN, MSNBC and other more general media. Boyle is especially adept at mimicking the strange very sad suicide stories that show up in the news. Existential could be defined as no discernable cause and effect only unrelated random occurrences that point up no connection with anything or loneliness. There is no solace or happiness to be found in anything which is rather bluntly pointed out when the sympathy sex of the suicide prevention counselor Blake with the over the phone suicidal client does not result in any kind of happiness or hope. Rather the counselor moves into this lady’s suicidal mindset. And their only solace is ending their lives so they don’t have to face their loneliness. Pretty bleak, but sort brings an outline of our collective disconnection (loneliness) from everyone and everything.

  4. David July 25, 2018 at 11:01 pm

    I have not read a lot of Boyle, but have not liked much of what I have read. This story was better, except for the final section. I enjoyed each of the first four parts and thought it was pretty clear what theme he was trying to explore here. Then the first half of the final section comes, in which Boyle seems to think the reader is too stupid to understand the story and so explicitly tells us. That he also includes the title of the overall story in the dialogue is particularly awful. I like the idea of bookending the story with the same vignette returning, but this is badly handled. The final few paragraphs are a very clunky coda as well. So overall, a lot more good than bad this week.

  5. Greg August 5, 2018 at 11:14 am

    Larry – Thanks for sharing your thoughtful takeaways….and for the Steely Dan comparison!

    David – I appreciate you pointing out the weakness in the last part. And I never knew it was a faux pas to have the title of the story within the story itself….in the author’s interview he says the title is supposed to help entertain and give pleasure….so Dave, could you please elaborate on your thinking? Thanks!

    Sean – Your exquisitely long post is of a professional critic quality! You made me aware of so many things that went over my head. And you simply won’t give up on the adverb issue! My very favourite part was this:

    “What Boyle is on about here is how life, no matter what class you’re in, is really just a random and meaningless accrual of various stories that you share at dinner parties (or at work, or outside the bodega, or at your weekly poker game, or while riding the subway; whatever the norms are for your class).”

    Lastly, I liked the following part from the story as it set up the very end:

    “…I was thinking of the other scrawl of graffiti on the wall in the men’s room, just above the liberal-pussies sentiment. It had to do with Jesus. And salvation. The sort of thing you see on billboards in redneck country, standard issue, cant, the kind of bogus comfort they tended to avoid down at the National Suicide Prevention Society.”

  6. David August 5, 2018 at 9:17 pm

    Greg, including the title in a text can be done naturally in some cases, especially when the title is something very ordinary like the name of a character, a place, or a thing. But when the title is more of a mouthful it is often very clunky and distracting to include it in the text. It has a way of saying “this moment is very important because the title is being said in dialogue”. It’s especially bad in a case like this when the reader can easily understand the meaning of the title on their own without having a character not only tell it to us, but then go on to explain how it is a description that applies to the main character. We already knew all that, so it makes it look like the author is looking too hard for a dramatic moment and thinks to little of the intelligence of the reader.
    .
    The phenomena of saying the title in dialogue in popular films has been documented by a youtube video clip. In some of these cases there seems nothing at all problematic about the title being said. But there are a few in there that even if you have not seen the film you can tell that the moment where the title is said is cringeworthy. It’s only two minutes long, so have a look: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0V1sYNvKZt8

  7. Greg August 7, 2018 at 3:44 am

    Thanks David for explaining it all depends HOW the title of the piece is mentioned within the body of the work….and I enjoyed the YouTube compilation!

  8. William August 15, 2018 at 9:39 pm

    Boyle has become simple-minded in his old age. This is too blatant to be called a story. Pseudo-profound setups. “Oooh — he’s so lever.”

  9. William August 15, 2018 at 9:44 pm

    That should have been “clever”. But even the typo works — Boyle is simply moving the levers of emotional stimulus.

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