Saturday, August 21, 2010

Short-a-Day: Leigh Gallagher's "The Drought"

Originally published in American Short Fiction, Winter 2009. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 75.

There's a lot of interesting stuff going on here, from the narrative--a widow makes a rambling confession to her dead husband ("Do you remember, Paul, five months ago?")--to the profession--that of a veterinarian's euthanizing assistant--to the situations, which include a hopeful seance. But how important is any of this, considering how inward and reflective the story is? Isn't it too much to conjure up a drought just to make a point about the narrator's sexual abstinence? Are we reading because we admire the writing or because we admire the story? "I arrive for dinner alone, now, and late, to sit at their round table, to stare at my reflection in the laminated wood and sip the cheap bourbon Mark pours for me and scratch my back repeatedly through the afghan Francine has recently crocheted and set around my bare shoulders, as if my grief makes me cold." It's all trying too hard to mean something.

That said, there are so many curious things and excellent descriptions that Gallagher is able to put out a terrific narrative: though it's distracted and consequently interrupted by random thoughts, we want to keep reading, and it's always clear where we are. Moreover, she's trying to preserve a life, so it's no wonder that she gets lost in the details sometimes (like most obsessive people out there). To be poetic, and to tie back into the title of the story, she would be drowning in all of this, if only there were water.

At the same time, however, this ability to smoothly blur these levels of flashbacks leads to a bunch of stuff that arguably doesn't add much more to the characters--and certainly not to the ambling plot--and when Gallagher starts getting actively philosophical, the story suffers for it:

When I came to, there you were, your gaunt face and freckled torso, Paul, your blond mustache and those purple, prismatic shapes radiating out of your mouth instead of words. So we met upon my emergence from the void, from a place I don't remember. And this worries me, especially lately--for what if, Paul, what if, the moment I whacked my head was really the moment of my death (yes, My Death, Paul, you don't have a monopoly on death) and those eleven years weren't eleven years at all, but only that single, transitory second between the impact of my skull with the hibachi and my body with the sand, the function of this extreme time-lapse being to allow the newly dead (me), a last chance to understand finality, and forever, to absorb the gravity of the death process....
There's much to love about the voice, especially a voice arguing, essentially, with itself, and the parenthetical asides are humorous, but it's not clear that they're adding anything, other than their own smartness. That intelligence winds up coming back to taint the interesting stuff, for now we read into the importance of her job (as if she planned to have this job in the event that she might one day have to reflect on her husband's death) and into the relevance of other characters--heck, even into pop-cultural references like Ghost which all but cheapen the more literary devices Gallagher is using here. Not everything has significance; less can sometimes be more. I want to like this story more than I do, but it feels like a mirage, and it leaves me a bit parched.

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