Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Beating a Dead Horse

This week's New Yorker features "Three Days," by Samantha Hunt. This story depends on one of my "favorite" tropes: the death of an animal used to parallel (and shed light upon, of course) the death of a human. Open any copy of Glimmer Train and you can barely swing a dead cat without hitting a story that uses this trick. I'm a little surprised to find it in The New Yorker, but that just goes to show how sturdy the old swayback is.

In "Three Days," a young woman, Beatrice, returns to the family farm for Thanksgiving with her mother and stoner brother. The father, who Beatrice loved, is dead. He had lung cancer, and the mother confesses that she had his plug pulled (or conspired with the doctor to practice a little euthanasia; that's unclear).

After dinner, Beatrice and her brother, high on wine and marijuana, decide to ride the family horse, named Humbletonian, to Wal-Mart. The father loved the horse, of course (Oh, Wilbur); he used to sit in the hayloft, smoking away his existential angst and singing "Breathless" to the critter. (Yes, "Breathless"; the father died of lung cancer, the horse later drowns; what else would he sing?)

At Wal-Mart, the kids (both adults) tie the horse to a shopping cart corral (ha) and go inside. When they return, the horse is gone. They find the horse on a frozen pond behind the store. When they call the horse, it walks toward them but breaks through the ice and, naturally, drowns while they look on, helpless.

Just in case the parallel isn't clear enough, earlier in the story Beatrice reflects on her mother's decision to "kill" the father:

“I wouldn’t have killed him,” Beatrice says out loud and waits until she hears a question from the far side of her brain, from her mother. “What would you have done? Just let him suffer? Let him go on breathing that bubbly wet breath that sounded like a damn water fountain?”

Ah, the bubbly wet breath.

There are other elements to this story, in particular an amusing bit about the mother's job reinterpeting myth and history in order to create advertising campaigns and amusement park characters. And none of the above makes this story a sucky story, not especially. It's just that if you've seen one dead horse, you've pretty much seen them all. An animal in a short story about a dead family member is like the new guy on an episode of Star Trek: doomed, doomed, doomed.