Friday, March 08, 2013

30 Days of the Flannery O'Connor Award: Day 4

Mary Hood on Daniel Curley’s LIVING WITH SNAKES

“Surviving Divorce and Other Lessons from Living with Snakes

The New York Times describes Daniel Curley as making “good fiction out of bad marriages.” His Flannery O’Connor Award-winning story collection Living with Snakes proves it. A phrase lifted from his title story, “living arrangements and sex”—as an example of dangerous and unlikely mixtures—is the fuel for all the heat, light and fireworks in this wonderful collection. Curley balances gravity with levity as he portrays all these battered valentines with their cauliflower hearts. Curley does not dwell on the slow and ordinary easements, omissions, oversights and relinquishments, rebukes and corrections that lead to the declaration of spousal war. We see it, though, in details. A wife doesn’t like the way her husband rows, or else she does, but wants to know where he learned. As though that part of his life was treason, although it came before they met. A broken couple in another story seeks refuge in a public aviary and argue about the Latin names of the birds. He notices the obvious and showy, and she is drawn to the hidden and secret. Curley’s writerly duties focus on revealing and mapping survivors in the domestic rubble; rescue is not his work. Curley’s characters are either dazed or exhausted but it is obvious that they—in the process of divorcing or after the papers are signed and years after it is legally over—will never be “free” of each other. In “The Other Two” his divorced narrator reports that “the lawyers delicately peeled us down to our artichoke hearts of spite and venom, our purest humanity,” and adds, “There even had to be a separate court action concerning the tent pegs.”

In “Trinity,” a divorced couple is knocked back into each other by terrible circumstances. “And then,” the first sentence explains, starting us deep in, way in, “the Andersons met again at the deathbed of their child.” In their astonished grief, they grapple blindly and bodily, allied against loss and acceptance, making nightly and afternoon assignations into numbing routines, untenderly peeling off each other like torn away adhesive tape, their new pain and need causing them to forget “for a time that they were cursed and didn’t like each other.” Hindsight’s irritating glint off the glass and frame of their dead child’s photograph keeps them moving it and themselves room to room around the perimeter of their struggles, in what used to be their home. Baffled, they tacitly agree they cannot fix, they have nothing to forgive, and there are no rules. All they want is out, and they are desperately seeking relief, as Curley’s couples do, through trial and error.

“When Peter Watts moved into Indiana Price’s house, the ground rules were explicit,” Curley begins his title story, “Living with Snakes.” Indiana’s admirer Peter Watts “would have a room in the house, a Federal house near the village out the river road. He would be a presence in the house for her young son while she was traveling. She traveled a lot. She consulted. She moved and she shook. A son—after all, well, you don’t exactly like to leave him at the vet’s. And there would be no sex. She wanted the arrangement to last. She had theories about that. Statistics bore her out. Her own experience bore her out: there are some things you just don’t try to mix. Living arrangements and sex, for example.”

Thus, in the story “Living with Snakes,” preventative ground rules and healthy assumptions are established from the start. Surely, this couple will make it. The know-it-all woman has met a man who doesn’t mind if she does. This isn’t their first rodeo, either. Nothing so complicated and agonizing as marriage is going to interfere with Peter Watts and Indiana Price’s relationship. Modern times—and Indiana is certainly and thoroughly modern—require modern methods. The problem is that the rules and assumptions are all Indiana Price’s. For Peter Watts’s part, sitting in the bachelor quarters she assigned him, his own rather old-school passion and assumptions leave room for hope. She has built a fire. She is drinking tea, and he is listening to her ratify their social contract on move-in day. He seeks something new from his heart’s archive, to reveal himself in some true and fresh way, nothing he has ever shared with his wife, but something untarnished and deep and all his to offer her, some insight or tribute to honor her. He is like Walter Mitty, Thurber’s unlikely hero, humbly seeking a legend to share. This is that shining and vulnerable moment, Curley reminds us, “before the sediment of doubt and evasion silts it all up.” Not to mention Indiana’s betrayal of all rules by bringing home a house guest/lover and his range of hungry snakes, opening a whole worm-can of “it feels right” assumptions which bring out the hero and the fool in all of them.

Daniel Curley’s short fiction ranks with the finest of his time. These eleven stories stand up to comparison with the work of V.S. Pritchett, Alice Munro, William Trevor, John Cheever and Anne Tyler. As Virginia Woolf wrote of Jane Austen’s characters, “Beauty illumines these fools.” Much of that beauty is the skill of Curley’s process of revelation, his unwavering gaze and his dry wit. We may be appalled, but we are never bored. When his character, adrift from a failed marriage in “The First Baseman” braces himself on the ledge of the snack bar to arm wrestle with the Amazonian sweetheart of his dreams—who, he says proudly “plays very close to the bat”—how can he, or we, lose no matter how it turns out?

Mary Hood is the author of HOW FAR SHE WENT (1984). She is also the author of Familiar Heat. Her work has been published in The Georgia Review, North American Review, and Yankee, among other publications.