Monday, March 13, 2006

Fargo, Revisited

What is it about Fargo that inspires crime stories? Maybe it only seems that way. Perhaps there are only two, the Coen brothers' movie (Fargo, 1996) and this week's New Yorker story, "Gleason," by Louise Erdrich.

If you're like me, you might need your memory of the movie refreshed. In the film, a man hires a couple of low-lifes to kidnap his wife so that he can swindle his father-in-law out of a sizeable ransom. His wife is supposed to be released unharmed after the ransom is paid. Things go wrong. A woodchipper famously comes into play.

"Gleason," however, is completely different. Yes, there is a man who arranges to have his wife kidnapped so that he can run a little scam, after which his wife is to be released unharmed. Things go wrong. But there are absolutely no woodchippers in this story. And although the wife's father is a wealthy businessman, he is not ripped off. Not directly.

Anyway, the similarities are amusing but probably not important. "Gleason" is the story of a married man, John Stregg, who falls in love with a younger woman (Jade) and gets her pregnant. The story begins with a nice, direct dose of menace, that time-honored attention getter:
John Stregg opened his front door wide and there was Gleason, his girlfriend Jade’s little brother. The boy stood, frail and skinny, in the snow with a sad look on his face and a gun in his hand.
Gleason has come to blackmail Stregg, but his motives are pure; he wants the money for his sister. He asks for $100,000, an amount which Stregg feels is "wretched." Stregg, a banker, suggests $600,000; he wants desperately to do right by Jade. He tells Gleason that he would leave his wife for Jade except that his wife (Carmen) owns a controlling interest in the bank; leaving his wife would cost him his job, and then he wouldn't be able to support Jade and the baby. However, he then comes up with the kidnapping scheme (he'd probably seen the movie, come to think of it). Gleason is to kidnap Carmen and Stregg will pay the ransom out of his retirement account. Gleason will return Carmen unharmed, Jade will be taken care of, and no one will be the wiser.

So what goes wrong? At first, nothing. The caper goes smoothly, except that Carmen is more disturbed by the kidnapping than Stregg anticipated. Erdrich conveniently ignores the little complications that would arise in real life, such as Why aren't the police more inquisitive about Stregg's willingness to leave $600,000 in cash by a billboard without asking for help from police? Or how does Stregg's mistress pay cash for a new house without raising suspicions?

Eventually, Carmen remembers that she has seen her kidnapper (Gleason) before, in a local high school play. Warned, Gleason joins the army to get out of the area. Jade, who has no other family, blames Stregg for this turn of events and threatens to turn him in for the kidnapping. In an attempt to placate her, Stregg leaves Carmen and moves in with Jade, but Jade grows even more distant.

Eventually, Stregg confesses everything to Carmen, who calls the police. He is sent to prison.
In the years afterward, Stregg was sometimes asked by the friends he made behind bars what had caused him to confess what he’d done, and then take all the blame. Sometimes he couldn’t think of a good reason. Other times, he said he had guessed that it would never end; he’d seen that he’d be kicked from one woman to the other until the end of time. But, after he gave his answer, he always came back to that moment when he’d first opened the door to Gleason, and thought of how, when he saw the boy standing in the glowing porch light, in the snow, with that dull gun and that sad face, he hadn’t flinched.
From his perspective, Stregg is behind bars precisely because he always faced up to his responsibilities. He didn't flinch when Gleason showed up with a gun; he didn't flinch when it became necessary to have his wife kidnapped, nor when it became necessary to leave her, nor when it became necessary to return and confess his crime. He did the right thing, time after time, and prison is his reward.

The most interesting scene in this story might be when Stregg goes to visit his wife's father, who is "'in his nineties and in a nursing home, but perfectly lucid.'" After an uneventful visit in which they chat briefly about Stregg's wife but Stregg's thoughts drift to Jade, it is time for Stregg to leave:
When he left the old man, Stregg usually patted his arm or made some other vague gesture of apology. This time, still thinking of his visit with Jade, he bent dreamily over Carmen’s father. He kissed the dry forehead, stroked back the old man’s hair, and thoughtlessly smiled. The old man jerked away suddenly and eyed Stregg like a mad hawk.

“You bastard!” he cried.
From this absent-minded kiss on the head, Stregg has revealed his secret. Erdrich doesn't waste a word explaining this scene (it ends with that line), and she doesn't need to. We know it's time to warm up the woodchipper for poor old Mr. Stregg.

It's also interesting to take a look at how Erdrich describes the kidnapping itself. She describes the scene in which Gleason comes to the door with a gun, forces Stregg to tie up his wife, ties up Stregg, and then leaves with the wife. Then Stregg thinks about how he will drop the money, how Gleason will release Carmen in some remote area and she will have to walk home, what the police will think, and so forth. The scene ends, and the next section begins, like this:
The amount wasn’t excessive. It would use up most of their retirement account, but Carmen still had the bank. It would all blow over.

A blizzard came up and Carmen got lost and might have frozen to death had a farmer not pulled her from a ditch.
Erdrich completely skips the period in which Carmen is held hostage, opting instead for the neat little segue between "It would all blow over" and "A blizzard came up...." We get some details later about the time Carmen spent with Gleason, but not much. It's a bold jump-cut, and a good one. What would the story gain if Erdrich had shown us Carmen in Gleason's clutches, bound and gagged in a dark room? Yet how many of us would have had the sense to just leave it out altogether?