"Getting Closer" by Steven Millhauser Originally published in the January 3, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.
I’m excited to begin the new year with a story by one of my favorites, Steven Millhauser, whose Pulitzer-winning Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer is sadly under-read.
Millhauser’s short stories are often quite short, and this one is no exception, but in just a few columns he manages to pack more than most other do in ten of the magazine’s pages. In “Getting Closer” we closely follow the thoughts and perceptions of a young boy who is excited because the day he waits for each year — the day when his family goes to the river — has finally arrived, almost. Here is Millhauser’s opening sentence.
He’s nine going on ten, skinny-tall, shoulder blades pushing out like things inside a paper bag, new blue bathing suit too tight here, too loose there, but what’s all that got to do with anything?
At the end of the story, we may come to think that those details matter quite a bit, not because they are important to the plot (they aren’t) but because those details are a part of this moment and this moment a part of this young boy’s life.
This is the beginning of a very simple story. The first few columns are a lush description of everything around them. The boy notices and relishes everything, and we are taken into his mind:
In the picnic basket he can see two packages of hot dogs, jars of relish and mustard, some bun ends showing, a box of Oreo cookies, a bag of marshmallows which are marshmellows so why the “a,” paper plates sticking up sideways, a brown folded-over paper bag of maybe cherries.
Still, though the day has arrived, the boy doesn’t think the day at the river really begins until he steps into the river. His older sister has already jumped in and is calling to him, but he’s not sure he wants to enter. Unlike the typical story, this is not leading to a drowning. The boy is simply struck by the realization that when he steps into the river, the moment will begin, and then it will be over: “He’s shaken deep down, as though he’ll lose something if the day begins.” I remember when as a child I first realized that if Christmas actually arrived that would mean it was close to being over. Consequently, I soon wished that the moments before would never end, even if that meant Christmas never came. As an adult, the peace of a vacation has often been endangered by the realization that, once began, it would soon be over. And each New Year is filled with hope, but subverted by the realization that with the passing of a year a bit of life is gone: my child will never be this age again — it’s over, the nine-year-old is gone forever.
However, in “Getting Closer,” Millhauser inflicts this child with all of this plus the terrible intimations of mortality. This child has “seen something he isn’t supposed to see, only grownups are allowed to see it.” This is, then, the day this young boy — who is nine going on ten, whose shoulder blades are pushing out like things inide a paper bag, and whose new blue bathing suit is too tight her and too loose there — realizes he and everyone he loves is going to die:
If he goes into the river he’ll lose the excitement, the feeling that everything that matters because he’s getting closer and closer to the moment he’s been waiting for. When you have that feeling, everything’s full of life, every leaf, every pebble. But when you begin you’re using things up. The day starts slipping away behind you. He wants to stay on this side of things, to hold it right here. A nervousness comes over him, a chilliness in the sun. In a moment the day will begin to end. Things will rush away behind him. The day he’s been waiting for is practically over. He sees it now, he sees it: ending is everywhere. It’s right there in the beginning. They don’t tell you about it. It’s hidden away in things. Under the shining skin of the world, everything’s dead and gone.
The ending, after that very peaceful beginning, is a rush of emotion. It’s a brilliant move by The New Yorker to place this story in the issue that would straddle the death of one year and the birth of another. The story’s concept itself may not be original, but in Millhauser’s hands the detail, the pacing, the structure make for a very strong short story well worth the time it takes to read and reread.