“The Barn at the End of Our Term” is the fifth story in Karen Russell’s second short story collection,Vampires in the Lemon Grove. For an overview with links to review of the others stories in this collection, please click here.
I planned to, but I haven’t been reviewing the stories in Russell’s collection regularly. I keep getting stalled. That’s because, for the most part, I don’t like them. Though I admire Russell’s natural writing ability and her commitment to strange ideas, I’m finding little that resonates in most of these stories. The concept is easy to latch on to — hey, here’s a story about dead presidents who are horses in the afterlife — but so what? A few of the stories have come across as inept and juvenile. “The Barn at the End of Our Term” is one of those. I have so very little to say about this story that is, apparently, an attempt to ask the question: What if death is not the final answer and we find ourselves in an even more absurd situation than the life we just left? But in her exploration (can it be called that?), Russell injects some phony pathos into a gimmick that fails to pay off.
To be fair, it is one of her earlier stories, published first in Granta 97: Best of Young American Novelists back in Spring of 2007 (four years before she was even an American novelist; you can actually read the whole thing here on Granta’s website). Russell’s debut short story collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves had just come out. Russell was 25.
The premise of “The Barn at the End of Our Term” is absurd, which is fine, of course. Former President Rutherford B. Hayes has died and is stunned to find that he’s now a horse. He’s taken to a barn where there are ten other former presidents, all horses. All, regardless of how long they’ve been there, are confused. They have ideas about where they are, but those range from heaven to hell. The horses are tended by Fitzgibbons and his niece, but whether these two work for God or the devil, none of the horses knows. Perhaps they are just ordinary humans, oblivious to the fact that they are feeding dead presidents. That thought makes it all the more humiliating, especially for Eisenhower who just knows if he could get back to Washington, he could win the presidency again; surely his rebirth as a horse is a loophole to the term limits imposed by the Twenty-Second Amendment.
But he can’t — none of them can — get to Washington. Not only do they have no idea where they are, but there is a fence that marks their territory. They wonder what’s on the other side. Is there another heaven? Is this some kind of limbo or purgatory Hayes wonders if maybe his wife Lucy is somewhere over there, though for some time he believes she is one of the sheep. Why are they here? They don’t suffer enough for it to be hell, and they aren’t happy enough for it to be heaven. It all feels pointless to them. If only they could get to the other side of the fence.
The horses cannot jump the fence, though. Something in their nature prevents them. It’s Luis Buñuel directs an episode of Mister Ed. No, no, no — certainly the silly ending is much safer and more conventional than anything Buñuel could have stomached. He’d never even think to empower once gain any one of these once powerful men. It’s as if a writer (albeit a talented writer) for Mister Ed heard someone talking about Buñuel.