Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Short-a-Day: Samantha Hunt's "The Yellow"

Originally published in The New Yorker, Nov. 29, 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 88.

"They were total strangers except for this dead dog."

This is, more or less, the raison d'etre of Hunt's story, in which a man, Roy, chooses to make his ordinary situation -- forty-two, living at home again, "'A pity,' his grandmother had decided" -- into an extraordinary one. He does this, in the first of many reversals that sound out the narrow line between ordinary and extraordinary, through normal means: painting his room a bright, optimistic yellow. His father sets him back in reality -- "Son, did you turn faggot over the weekend?" -- and so Roy goes for a drive, snapping into unreality with a very abrupt and regular collision with a dog. Total strangers, except -- the romantic essence -- for this dead dog (a very appropriately named "Curtains"), and the "turning" for both Roy and the dog's owner, Susanne. They choose, out of depression, to welcome in the irregular, and Susanne literally does, opening the door for Roy, who apologetically comes bearing her crushed dog: "Roy grabbed its tail and yanked the broken thing from under. Something tore like fabric. The neck was soft and floppy, like a harshly used work shirt. The dog was dead for certain."

Hunt tells the story well, relying on senses to communicate how intertwined these two "worlds" are, based entirely on perception, perception being, of course, such a type of disposition, a sense, itself. A welcoming, in one sense, or Hunt's words, a turning -- a punctuated choice. In the finest, central section, Hunt roots us in the physical (frequently referring to the dead dog), so as to show us that the sudden passion of these two strangers, the magic missing from their lives, is something "other." The most ordinary sort of extraordinariness:

  • "She knew the paw well, dipped in white fur, claws that alternated black, ivory, black, ivory. A piano on her dog's foot."

  • "Roy and Susanne sat by the rigid dog. She whimpered. She sounded like a tiny door creaking open. She wept and sniffled, wept and sniffled." 

  • "Underneath his hand her shoulder felt cushioned in a way that his wasn't. There was her skin. There was her muscle. There was her bone, her blood and all the blood's attendant particles keeping her alive, particles whose names he'd never know.

  • "Beneath the burned odor left by the vacuum, he could smell the dust still in the rug -- salt and sand and dried skin from her kids, her husband, her now dead dog. Roy inhaled. And they stayed locked in a silent trade. It wasn't a kiss, exactly, but something equally spectacular. The night, for all the species of insects alive in it, barely noticed." 
Compared to this, the conclusion--in which reality, Susanne's family, rushes back in--is a little too pat, too on the nose, but the story is worth it for these moments, a shared, eye-opening essence. The point of all art is to allow us to see (and through that, to feel) differently, and that's what Hunt's accomplished.

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