“Backpack”
by Tony Earley
from the November 5, 2018 issue of The New Yorker

Tony Earley last published a story in The New Yorker in 2012. I remember a little bit about “Jack and the Mad Dog” (see here). I read it quite a while after it was published, but in the time since I don’t think I’ve thought much about it or about Earley’s work. This should be a good opportunity to remember and to reevaluate.

The story begins with a list of items, eventually making its way to this interesting item that requires some more elaboration.

The gun, an H&R .38, had been his grandfather’s. Because Charlotte hated guns, he hadn’t told her while they were dating that he owned one. Telling her after they got married would have made him seem dishonest, and telling her after Carly was born would have cost him his ass. So he hadn’t told her. They had been married twenty-nine years.

I hope you are all enjoying some good reading time as the year winds down. This magazine is dated November 5, and I just cannot quite accept that we’ve essentially got two months left of 2018. Here’s to a good read! I look forward to your thoughts.

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By |2018-10-30T16:30:02+00:00October 29th, 2018|Categories: New Yorker Fiction, Tony Earley|Tags: |13 Comments

13 Comments

  1. David October 29, 2018 at 11:56 pm

    [Pssst …. Trevor …. His name is spelled Earley, not Early]

  2. pauldepstein October 30, 2018 at 8:45 am

    Interesting plot, but the writing is too showy with ostentatious description that leaves the viewpoint of the characters behind. I think I understand what the writer was trying to do, but the story “didn’t work” for me. I won’t be too surprised if others like it, though. In particular, I would strongly fault this: “A man and a woman somewhere near the front of the bus talked softly, their words intimate and indistinguishable, like the nighttime conversation of loving parents on the far side of a wall. ”
    This might be an interesting poetic image, but in context it is obtrusive. There is
    nothing in what we’ve learned of the characters to indicate that they would be interested
    in a murmured conversation in the front of the bus, so the viewpoint of the characters
    is simply left behind.

    Paul

  3. Trevor Berrett November 1, 2018 at 2:15 pm

    Thanks, David! I’ll blame autocorrect, but I think I just wasn’t paying attention!

  4. David November 1, 2018 at 9:28 pm

    This one did not work at all for a couple of significant reasons. First of all, by not telling the reader that John plans to kill himself, Earley leaves us with the impression that he is going to kill someone else. (One does not need to be a genius sleuth to figure out what a raft, a gin, a cement block, and a chain adds up to.) At first I thought he was going to kill his wife. But then he just left her behind. Was there someone out there he had history with he needed to confront? We don’t know, and then he meets the woman on the bus. More on her later. But for now, the whole what-he’s-up-to of the story gets a bit lost. When we finally find out it’s more of an “Oh, ok” moment that anything more. But why even go for more here? It’s a cheap gimmick to create simplistic suspense to not tell us what John is planning, suggest maybe it’s something it isn’t, and then (surprise!) we get the reveal. It bothered me even more because telling us from the start makes it more compelling storytelling. If we know that he is going to try to kill himself, we then get to wonder why. We can examine his interactions with his wife more clearly, not looking for signs of a homicidal motive, but of a suicidal mind. The fact that depression, as the author discusses in the interview, is not rational and does not typically leave overt signs of how it is driving someone to suicide is more clearly revealed if we understand that from the start.
    .
    Now back to the girl on the bus. Ok, I guess I can buy that this mother of a young child is looking for a guy to bring home and make her boyfriend and needing her sister to look out for her, but I don’t buy for a moment that John would connect with her like that and that fast. He’s looking to get away. Adopting the identity of some rough loner. And then immediately he sits with this needy woman and becomes her companion? Nope. And why does Earley pick a woman with a young child? Is he trying to have her somehow stand in for the wife he just left behind? That does not make much sense. And the fact this woman is really his daughter’s age leads to more lack of clarity. And the fact that she seems to have a whole second story on her own going on with her life and family only serves as a distraction from John’s story. All of it is a mess.
    .
    Finally, I’ll throw in as a pedantic quibble something I stumbled over in the story. It’s “Sault Ste. Marie”, not “Sault Sainte Marie”.

  5. Diana Cooper November 2, 2018 at 5:26 pm

    Right, David, and it’s the Soo Locks. But, I digress. I pretty much agree with your comments on the story. A few plot tweaks could have resulted in a more effective and moving story. Much of the writing I find very good, which makes the story more disappointing in several ways. I certainly assumed that this man was going to either kill some individual or perhaps commit some violent public crime, and I continued to believe that until I was told otherwise. I liked the persona he chose for himself: the name, the clothes, the hair (or lack thereof), the Fu Manchu thing, and the name Jimmy Ray. I was still with him until he got on the bus and met the girl and her kid. None of his actions from that point on rang true and it became more preposterous when he moved into her house. Also,the actions of the girl’s sister didn’t feel believable, given that we had no backstory to account for her extreme rage. I could go on, but you’ve already hit on many of the points I was going to make. Boiled down, the story seemed to be about a middle-aged, well-educated man who,despite having a companionable and successful wife, a daughter doing well in the groves of academe and a large and comfortable home, finds himself so overcome by depression that he takes a wild and poorly thought-out stab at doing something to escape it. Depression is a terrible and terrifying illness that can often reduce all of the positive things in a person’s life to a heap of ashes.In the end, John has had no epiphany, is still depressed, has now involved his family in his problems and may or may not try suicide again. This is a sad situation and very worthy of examination, I just wish this particular attempt at shining a light on it had been better handled and that I could have felt more real empathy with poor John’s admittedly terrible plight, I hope the author takes these comments in the spirit that I make them. Tony Earley has more and better stories yet to write and I look forward to reading them.

  6. Larry Bone November 3, 2018 at 3:15 am

    “Backpack” has some disadvantages but it mainly seems an interesting short film stuffed into a short story.  The advantage of film over print is that one establishing camera shot gives you all the detail that sometimes takes too many words during a story even if they are basically used in a concise way. 

    Sometimes it is a little overdone but what the protagonist looks at, hints at his state of mind.  Earley uses detailed contrasts and differences very effectively even if some of the description and dialogue is a little overgrown or overstated seemingly aiming for a bit more impact than is actually necessary. 

    Yet the reasons he gave for what he did or for his actions or choices are mostly creatively convincing if a little too numerous.

    I missed a little more explanation of how he became so cynical, so not able to feel part of or be a part of the present moment of the life he by favorable or unfavorable circumstance had built for himself.  Teaching history, he couldn’t live large enough to make his own history. 

    I like how you could choose what you think of the protagonist.  Is he whacko or really bored and disappointed his former teacher/husband/father life hadn’t turned out quite as stimulating as he thought it should have been?  I like the fact that he was pretty well behaved around a woman younger than himself and even though she was a lost soul and might have been leading him on, he didn’t take the advantage or the bait. 

    What made them both sympathetic is that they both sort of understood each other slightly and probably sensed each was a bit wounded by bad choices but couldn’t tell or let on about it.  Yet they had to secretly make up stuff or secretly take action.

    Why did he have to go over to the dark side to end a somewhat uncomfortable existence that he could only complain about by being overly irritated by his spouse but that he could never explain to his daughter.

    One way some foreigners look at Americans is that they are spoilt by having achieved a moderately secure, somewhat satisfying middle class life yet wanting or needing more and wondering why seems beyond their reach.  Or to have realized that they cannot ever be satisfied and content drives them crazy.  So they just live with it by being cynical and irritated by everyone.  Or they tried to seem okay with their life to the ones dear to them.

    I think the flashbacks weaken the forward movement of the story and do explain what happened prior but they don’t really explain why or he needed to escape his first life and then altogether escape life itself.

    Some would say it is predictable but the details and action paint a wistful portrait of  troubled and tormented people.  If you are of a mind that random unexplainable action brings about random unexplained reaction then the story can seem somewhat more plausible.  Some news feature stories seem unexplainable but nevertheless actually happened.

  7. Larry Bone November 3, 2018 at 2:21 pm

    I was thinking a bit more about “Backpack”.  Some short stories are fictions written to seem real and the best actually seem really real.  And others are fictions written to comment on real life.

    If you don’t see it as too usual, the very exacting description and dialogue in Backpack make the situation seem very real though the author made it up (unless it is patterned on a real event) so it isn’t.  The husband and wife talking in hushed tones is a real existing thing that operates as a metaphor to describes a close relationship which might be healthy for both people. 

    Even with the age gap, the protagonist sort of almost immediately has a close relationship that is somewhat healthy and works well as long as either doesn’t unfairly use or exploit the other.  That the protagonist has seeming potential makes his own sense of failure with his wife difficult to explain.

    Writing advice experts say an author’s job is to explain everything.  But a short story is like a house that a builder is either very clear on how it is to be constructed or he not sure how he wants it to go even if he or she is an expert on good building practices and techniques.

    As a reader you might think it is a good house or a not so good a house but in the end it is not fair to try to tell Frank Lloyd Wright how to build his house.  You may like it or not like it.

    As written the sudden new relationship might not be the best for either person.  It just seems a little better than if either had nobody.  There is tension here between the possibility of happiness from having good food to eat, a good house to live in and a good person to love and be loved by.  And then you could have all that like the protagonist supposedly had with his wife though them seemed to have been uncertain and fell into a relationship and then maybe through too much familiarity, grew apart.

    Maybe some readers didn’t see any of that but I could kind of feel it and it brought me closer into the story not at first but halfway through.

    Human nature is endlessly fascinating in terms of what can make people reasonably happy and what can’t or doesn’t.  I think mental health professionals try to deal with when human nature compells a person to not be able to control themselves or if they have serious issues that interfere with their ability not to harm or exploit themselves or others or they are extremely unhappy or frustrated.  I am probably over simplifying.

    Ideally everyone works their life out to be reasonably satisfied or it is a situation they can still live with even it not ever as good as what they dreamed of achieving.  The protagonist takes on an alternate identity and drops out of his original one.  It is kind of awkward and maybe a little embarassing because if he is well educated and successful, satisfaction should be easier to attain or that’s the conventional wisdom.

    I think Earley has a few writing quirks and excesses but on the whole he explores the basic pursuit or failure to achieve happiness in a sensitive and open-ended manner.  And readers may like “Backpack” a lot because they can relate to that.

  8. Lauren Delgado November 6, 2018 at 11:57 pm

    I enjoyed this week’s story because of Earley’s ability to show John’s hopeless mindset. The flashbacks to the Hall & Oats concert juxtaposed against his suicide plan shows the drastic and devastating change in John’s life. A man, once happily listening to a concert with the woman he loves, is now having an identity crisis as he plans his own death. This stark change in John’s outlook on life impacted me as a reader. I felt for John and what he was going through. I found Earley’s writing to be beautiful and engaging; I’d love to read more of his work.

  9. Sean H November 7, 2018 at 3:31 am

    This one was pretty terrible. I come at writers with whom I’m unfamiliar with a very open mind, but Earley here has given us sort of a third-rate ripoff of Ron Rash, Daniel Woodrell, and Dennis Lehane. Apparently this is how tenured profs who whine about their “depression” and New Yorker readers born into the upper classes see poor white trailer trash. The story is neither comic nor tragic, the attempts at dramatizating the narrative are predictable, the sentence-level writing is either overwrought or obvious. There are a few good moments (the time-truncation paragraph that starts with “After the match” is miles better than the Hall & Oates saxophonist nonsense) speckled throughout, but this is low-grade-plywood material here.

    Audi-driving family man academic has midlife crisis, masquerades as Fu-Manchu-goateed welder to off himself in ridiculously elaborate and contrived fashion? No thanks. The plot is simply a litany of events, a staticky recording, more irritating than anything. The complications are predictable, the supporting characters are stock as hell (C.J. is particularly odious/offensive/one-note — the wise and ultra-perceptive ol’ country gal who sees through a white-collar city boy’s lies). There are too many moments that are told instead of shown (“Who was lucky and who should have known better? Who was the catch and who’d got caught?”) and the prose draws way too much attention to itself (“‘You don’t look like you,’ she said. ‘Your eyes don’t look like your eyes.'”). A pat resolution that hinges on a metacommentary about history — really? It just isn’t good writing.

  10. Reader November 7, 2018 at 10:45 pm

    Unfortunately, I’m largely with Sean here. I don’t mean to rip on Earley, but this didn’t work for me on a number of levels. All I’ll add is that, for a realistic story, the psychological jumps taken to justify John’s supposed transformation were paper thin. Pretty superficial and unconvincingly rendered and sort of insulting to those who actually struggle with depression, as, rather than someone actually gripped by a genuine mental health condition, John seemed very much like a bored trust-funder plagued with a pre-teen-level sophistication about life.

  11. Larry Bone November 8, 2018 at 6:22 am

    Readers have different expectations about what a story should be and what is plausible, believable and what sort of character can earn the reader’s sympathy or when do the details seem false or contrived. Different threshholds exist at different levels. Or that the people who have less mental difficulty are less deserving of a reader’s sympathy than those who are extremely mentally ill. Or that the main character’s attitude is childish or adolescent or somehow less worthy of attention than a more adult viewpoint. Or that other writers who have done this kind of story are being ripped off by this not very well done imitation. Sometimes I think overly sophisticated literary viewpoints can become so analytical as to seem a slightly inhumane in a more basic way. Also the more outwardly successful a character seems, the less sympathy he or she can expect even in fiction if their life starts falling apart. But that is the beauty of a short story that actually meets the achievement criteria of what makes a good short story according to a single reader. One excellent one may appear or not or a lot of disappointing ones roll by. It’s good that they appear at all or are read at all.

  12. David November 8, 2018 at 8:32 am

    Reader, as much as I didn’t like the story, the idea that he adopts this different persona was not one of my reasons. He explains that the initial idea was that he wanted to look different enough and uses a different name so that it will seem that he has just disappeared and won’t be identified to his wife as the guy who killed himself. That doesn’t seem thin reasoning. I’m not sure why you think it might be insulting, but if you read the author interview you will see that Earley is one of those people who has had a serious struggle with depression, so he has some real knowledge of the character he has written.

  13. Ken November 10, 2018 at 4:22 pm

    This propelled me along on the level of suspense. I was waiting to see what would happen and was engaged on that (admittedly superficial) level. I must concur, though, with the general commentary above that this is not particularly rich material.

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