Having read Alice Munro over the last ten years, beginning with Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, ,Loveship, Marriage, dipping back into her books of the mid-90s, but then moving forward from there, I read the first story in her first book, Dance of the Happy Shades, with excitement and just a dash of trepidation. What if the story wasn’t any good, what if it was painful to read – or even worse – what if the story was absolutely brilliant, thus confirming that any hope I have of improving my own writing is pointless, because you either have it, or you don’t. Of course, the result of reading “Walker Brothers Cowboy,” was neither of these extremes. It is a great, interesting and well-written story, neither transcendent with brilliance, nor horrible. It is the story written by a writer who has obviously been working at her craft, who has been reading and writing for years, and it also hints at the greatness that is to come. It is more polished than some authors early writing – more polished than some of Steinbeck’s early short stories (although Steinbeck’s forte is the novel, not the story), and better than early Richard Russo (another writer whom I’ve read throughout his career, tracing his arc from good, to brilliant, and then back down to just being good).
So, down to specifics, specifically what I admire in this short story. I admire Munro’s selective execution of diction through the careful use of just the right verb or noun. The story begins with:
After supper my father says, “Want to go down and see if the Lake’s still there?” We leave my mother sewing under the dining-room light, making clothes for me against the opening of school. She has ripped up for this purpose an old suit and old plaid wool dress of hers, and she has to cut and match very cleverly and also make me stand and turn for endless fittings, sweaty, itching from the hot wool, ungrateful.
There are so many interesting things going on here. The use of the phrase “against the opening of school,” is so well turned – it sets up the confrontational relationship that the mother has with their new poverty, in combating that poverty – it is her against the world – and it also characterizes a slightly more country way of speaking, a “down homeness” that makes Munro such a believable writer of this world, as do all of the details of the creation and fitting of these wool clothes.
Moving farther down the first page, Munro also absolutely delights the imagination with this simile description:
The street is shaded, in some places, by maple trees whose roots have cracked and heaved the sidewalk and spread out like crocodiles into the bare yards.
This is a new, non-cliché way to describe the roots in a yard, one of which ignites my imagination, so that not only does she make the setting of the story come alive, I now see tree roots differently.
Other things I admire are how she works in some metaphysical thoughts and wonderings into the story without weighing down the story too much. For instance, in scenic summary, she shows how the narrator’s father described the creation of the Great Lakes in the Ice Age, and that leads to the narrator reflecting,
“The tiny share we have of time appalls me, though my father seems to regard it with tranquility.”
The above line works because it does several things at once – namely, it advances character, plot, and theme. In characterization, we learn both about the narrator and the father through this analysis – that the young narrator is introspective, and worries about the purpose and impact of her life, and that her father (at least through her eyes) has reached some sort of acceptance – not denial of mortality, but rather a peaceful acknowledgement of mortality. It also gently keeps the plot moving forward to an ultimate confrontation with the passage of time, and its effects on people and relationships, with is both the literal and thematic focus of the story.
Ultimately, this is a quiet little story. In order to give the mother a break, the kids go with the father on one of his sales routes, and through her father’s visit with an old flame, the narrator sees that she doesn’t know her father as well as she thought. She says that:
One of the things my mother has told me in our talks together is that my father never drinks whisky. But I see he does. He drinks whisky and talks of people whose names I have never heard before.
She is losing her total naivete and innocent belief in her father as being only the heroic father, and shifting into understanding him as a mortal man, a man that might have regrets or at least wonderings of how his life may have been otherwise, other than being the husband and father that he is. What makes this especially powerful is that he isn’t visiting someone who is better off than him, he is not seeing what an easier life he might have, at least not easier financially, but rather, just a different life. And in this, the reflection of time comes up again and again, finally expressed by Nora, the old flame, as “Time,’ says Nora bitterly. ‘Will you come by ever again?” And as she bids them goodbye,
She stands close to the car in her soft, brilliant dress. She touches the fender, making an unintelligible mark in the dust there.
In this strong, clear image, we are given a moment that works both literally in the plot, in showing us how she has been affected by this brief visit, and how the narrator has been affected (in noticing this small detail), and it also serves the theme/meaning of the story, in pressing upon the image of the passage of time, and the lack of imprint that each of us makes on the world. This is so well done, that this could be the end of the story, but Munro takes it a bit farther, and instead leaves us with this moment that reminds me of the ending of James Joyce’s “The Dead.” Munro writes:
So my father drives and my brother watches the road for rabbits and I feel my father’s life flowing back from our car in the last of the afternoon, darkening and turning strange, like a landscape that has an enchantment on it, making it kindly, ordinary and familiar while you are looking at it, but changing it, once your back is turned, into something you will never know, with all kinds of weathers, and distances you cannot imagine.
When we get closer to Tuppertown the sky becomes gently overcast, as always, nearly always, on summer evenings by the Lake.
I am torn about this ending. I love the poetry of it – the pure imagery – but I also think that the Alice Munro of later stories would have restrained herself a bit more, leaving us with a strong image like the “unintelligible mark in the dust,” but then again, she does leave us with the concrete image of the overcast sky, an image that works both in setting and metaphor. And we also gain the few paragraphs in between, with the daughter reflecting on the drive home, and the things they do not do – i.e. the things they usually do to fill the time and make life endurable and good, the buying or ice cream and the sort – and instead they are left only with themselves, and the reflection of themselves in the world.