Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Are you dead, deer?

Recently, it seems that I can't look down the scope of my thirty-ought-six without seeing a short story about hunting. And all these stories were written before Dick Cheney realized he hadn't bagged his limit of lawyers, so I can't blame that recent news item as the impetus. Men (and some women) just like to write about hunting. There's an elemental life-and-death appeal to it.

The Pushcart Prize XXX (2006) contained at least two hunting stories: "Her First Elk," by Rick Bass, and another, the title of which escapes me, about a woman dying of cancer who goes on her first hunt with a man she met via a personal ad. By coincidence, I recently read "The Jewish Hunter," by Lorrie Moore, also about (in part) a woman on her first hunt. Yesterday I blogged about a variant, Robert Boswell's "A Walk in Winter," which includes a deer struck by a car (no, not technically a hunting story, but decidedly gamey). I recently blogged about Tobias Wolff's classic "Hunters in the Snow" (see "More Pancakes, Tub?"), and last night I read yet another, John McNally's "The New Year."

Like the Boswell story, "The New Year" is about a deer being hit by a car, but the ending alludes strongly to "Hunters in the Snow." A young man, Gary, is on his way home from a party, stoned out of his mind and recently informed that his girlfriend is pregnant. His mother left his father in the not-too-distant past, and his father is nearly comatose with grief, unable to work, unwilling to speak.

A twelve-point buck runs in front of Gary's car; the deer is killed, and Gary's car is totaled. He's five miles from home; as in every good hunting / deer bashing story, it's cold as hell, but he has no choice. He walks home. He tells his father what happened, and for the first time in a while his father perks up. He grabs an axe and hustles Gary into his truck and they take off for the crash site, where they find the car and the deer, "already dusted with snow." The father then proceeds to chop the buck's head off, his plan being to mount it, unpreserved, on a sheet of plywood and fedex it to his ex-wife and her new husband as a wedding present. The story ends:
They drive the rest of the way home in silence, the deer's head rolling around behind them, antlers clawing the truck's bed. Though the storm has ended and the sun is peeking over the tree line, the wind is still fierce, and Gary stares blankly at the snow whirling across the highway. His surge of adrenaline is on the wane now, the rush of exhilaration over. He's falling asleep, slipping into that precarious crack between consciousness and unconsciousness, but for a moment, before he drifts completely away, Gary pretends that he and his father have been in a fatal collision, and that although dead, they are still puttering along in the pickup, maneuvering it through swirling clouds instead of snow, and they are having the best time they've ever had together, father and son floating high above the rural roads and farms, two men no longer of this earth.
Now reread the ending of "Hunters in the Snow" and compare. While McNally takes us by the hand and spells out this image of two men bonding in a pickup, "no longer of this earth," Wolff creates the same image with a surreal scene, purely dramatized. It's good old showing versus telling, which is not to dismiss McNally's story, but to point out, once again, Tobias Wolff's mastery.