Tobias Wolff is Sicker Than Grace Paley: a Deal-Me-In Short Story Challenge

tobias wolfe (1)Not as sick as Eudora Welty or Flannery O’Connor, but still.

While I enjoyed “The Other Miller” by Tobias Wolff, I will admit that it’s kind of a gimmick story.  It’s a good gimmick, almost as good as the one in Incident at Owl Creek Bridge, hint, hint….

Private Miller is in boot camp, unhappy, regretting everything that led him to join the army. He’s sitting with Company Bravo in a hole he has dug as it fills with rain water waiting for the other company on exercise to pass by so they can jump up and capture them, when a message arrives.

His mother has died.  He is to return home immediately.

On the jeep ride to the airport, the other soldiers who escort him are sympathetic, at first. But Private Miller is unmoved, unemotional.  It seems like he doesn’t care at all when the other soldiers would be crying their eyes out.  What they don’t know is that they have the wrong Private Miller.

This Private Miller hasn’t spoken to his mother in years, so he’s sure no one would have sent him this message.  And he gets the other Private Miller’s mail all the time.  No reason for him to be upset.  He’ll just go along for the ride, happy to be out of the hole, literal and figurative, that he has dug for himself.

That I guessed the surprise Private Miller was in for, as you may already have done, did not spoil the story, but what a sick, twisted ending, Mr. Wolff.  Worthy of Ambrose Bierce.

The second card I drew this week just won’t match up with Mr. Wolff’s story.  “In This Country, But In Another Language, My Aunt Refuses to Marry the Men Everyone Wants Her To” by Grace Paley is very short, flash fiction is what it would be called today.

The narrator, probably a girl about age 16, sits at the breakfast table with her grandmother and her aunt.  Her aunt tells he how horrible her grandmother’s life has been, without giving her any specifics.  But her aunt is the one who never married, never had any children of her own.

The narrator tries to get her aunt to answer her question, did she ever have a life?, but the aunt dodges her saying “If you want to know, read Dostoevsky.”

Everyone at the dinner table laughs heartily at this but the narrator’s grandmother who asks “Why do you laugh?”

Her aunt simple replies “Laugh!”

The end.

What are we to make of this Ms. Paley?  Laugh in the face of tragedy and regret because laugh is all you can do?   There is a comic dinner scene in Crime and Punishment.  Dostoevsky’s anti-hero is wracked with guilt over the murder he has committed, but since no one at the table knows this they laugh and laugh at all the stories they tell about their own lives.  Watching Dostoevsky’s anti-hero squirm and squirm while everyone else laughs makes the scene very funny.  If only the narrator’s grandmother could see things this way, she could laugh along with her daughter.

Which may be how these two stories can link on a spiritual level at least.  If we can pull back far enough from our own tragedy, we can find the humor.  If all you can do is laugh or cry, may as well laugh.

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4 Comments

  1. My maiden name is Miller. Briefly, I lived down the hall from a Kate Miller. A decade later and half a country away, I *still* get her mail once in while. It would harrowing to get something of that level of importance.

    Am I terrible person for not having read “Incident at Owl Creek Bridge”? *puts it on the Wild list*

  2. It does not make you a terrible person. There’s a wonderful film version available on YouTube. Or you could read it. It’s very good. 😉

  3. Candiss says:

    So, it seems that Paley’s title is almost as long as her story!

    I’m intrigued about the Wolff story. I’ll add it to my reading list.

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