Sunday, January 23, 2011

Short-a-Day: Gary Amdahl's "The Cold, Cold Water"

Originally published in A Public Space, No. 6, 2008. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 64.

When he awoke, he turned his head away from the wall and looked at the long rectangle of pale yellow light appearing to support both window and wall. It was full of dust motes and cobwebs and microscopic pieces of decomposing insects, little clouds of these things drifting as if toward the bottom of a warm clear lake, and even though the window was high enough to make the angling beam seem almost like an empty glass coffin, he rose and walked over to the light, examining it in a way that struck him as perfectly gentle. He stepped into the warm box of light and he understood that, sick as he was, he was alive, and ought not to be so foolishly in love with the idea of the end of it.

That's the ending of Amdahl's beautifully written story, coming at the end of three sections in which our hero, Bobby, has taken a new wife, moved to his island cabin, and has some sort of misadventure with water, the "cold, cold" object of his affection. These sequences ring true and they all work -- with one major caveat. The opening of the story insists that: "He needed cold water poured on his head, and if that made him a maniac, okay: he was a maniac. He detested people. There: he had said so. He needed cold, cold water, and some elbow room." There is never, however, any hint of that within the story, and in fact the actual tone of the rest of the sentences never gets as terse as that. Sure, Bobby continues to mention that he senses something bad within him, but that's meant to be other than the suicidal impulse the story resolves itself away from. (And to be fair, the story begins with an epigraph from King Lear, hinting at the tempest, and then refers three times to images of the bear from that quote.)

Despite the confusing motives, each section is excitingly written (one of Bobby's actor friends compares his tale of sailing in the midst of a storm to something out of Conrad) and fluidly moves from set to set (to say nothing of the liquid descriptions). Bobby's calm observations are intriguing, too: once in the grips of the northeaster, he considers destroying the terrifying barometer, to quiet it: "He realized that he was a terrified supplicant who could, if he felt abandoned, smash his god to pieces." Later, his fixation on scuba diving technology causes him to literally miss the wonders of the ocean: "Lost in this meditation, and superficially distracted by the 'octopus gauge,' a many-tentacled device that could tell him everything about air supply, the condition of the water, and his personal position and welfare that he could imagine wanting to know, Bobby failed to notice that the weather was changing yet again."

Still, I can't help but feel that the story is slowed by all its excess. A scene in which Bobby and his theater friends discuss their dreams of a future collective, all while they listen to an old Indian radio broadcaster mistakenly play records at too fast or too slow a speed, doesn't tell us anything about these people: it's a slice of life in the midst of a different story. In fact, there are so many things going on -- like a sudden flashback to Bobby's scuba instructions at the hands of a saucy Frenchman who crewed with Cousteau -- that many of the conclusions between sections don't land; if anything, they divert and slow the current of the main plot. An anecdote about Rex's "amusingly wry dislike of games," particularly when it comes to poker, is just one more example of a leaking narrative, a story that expends so much energy remaining afloat that it forgets to head in any particular direction. The ending that I quoted above, when it comes, seems more like a miracle landing, a forced beaching, than connected to the rest of the story, swell as it sounds.

The story reminds me of Raymond Carver, but it cries out for the hand of Gordon Lish.

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