Wednesday, April 19, 2006

When Nothing Moves but Hope

When I first read Tobias Wolff's collection, Back in the World, the story that most viscerally affected me was "Desert Breakdown, 1968," a long story about a young family driving across the California desert toward Los Angeles, where the husband plans to look for work.

I admire this story more each time I reread it. It begins:
Krystal was asleep when they crossed the Colorado. Mark had promised to stop for some pictures, but when the moment came he looked over at her and drove on. Krystal's face was puffy from the heat blowing into the car. Her hair, cut short for summer, hung damp against her forehead. Only a few strands lifted in the breeze. She had her hands folded over her belly and that made her look even more pregnant than she was.
After the thumping, alliterative rhythm of the first sentence, reminiscent of tires rolling over expansion joints on a highway, we meet Mark, the husband, already in the act of breaking a promise to his pregnant wife. In the back seat lies Hans, their toddling son.

To summarize very briefly, the car breaks down at a remote gas station, little more than a cinderblock building and pumps. Mark must walk and hitchhike to a nearby town to buy an alternator, leaving Krystal and Hans behind. He's picked up by a man and two women in a hearse who encourage him to abandon the family and join the film crew they work on, to live the good life. It's exactly what Mark, already despairing of the life that lies before him, doesn't need to hear.

The pov alternates between Mark and Krystal. Back at the gas station, pregnant Krystal is shown kindness by the proprietor, a hard-drinking, shotgun-toting woman named Hope. (Between Hope and the hearse that threatens to bear Mark away, Wolff isn't stingy with the signposts in this story.) Hope lives in the back of the cinderblock gas station building, and invites Krystal to nap in her bedroom, a red-saturated "love nest."

Mark accepts the offer to ride on with the occupants of the hearse, abandoning Krystal and Hans, but soon changes his mind and demands to be let out. He catches another ride back to the parts store before it closes, but he doesn't have enough money to buy the alternator, and the store is closing. He is reduced to calling home for help, the thing he has most desperately avoided. Indulging in one final fantasy, he plans to pretend to be a state trooper, calling to inform his parents of a crash that killed Mark (their son) and his family. But when his father answers the phone, Mark says only, " 'Dad, it's me--Mark.' "

Krystal has her own delusion, and it too is crushed when she wakes up from her nap and Mark has not yet returned:
I will say a poem, Krystal thought, and when I am finished he will be here. At first silently, because she had promised to speak only English now, then in a whisper, and at last plainly, Krystal recited a poem the nuns had made her learn at school long ago, the only poem she remembered. She repeated it twice, then opened her eyes. Mark was not there. As if she had really believed that he would be there, Krystal kicked the wall with her bare feet. The pain gave an edge of absolute clarity to what she'd been pretending not to know: that he had never really been there and was never going to be there in any way that mattered.
While Krystal has been sleeping, Hans has been entertained by the men on the bench, who have taught him to say "bitch," the word with which he greets Krystal when she emerges from the bedroom. She flies into a rage, cursing the men in German, attacking them with a piece of lumber. The story ends with an apocalyptic image:
She [Krystal] shaded her eyes and looked around her. The distant mountains cast long shadows into the desert. The desert was empty and still. Nothing moved but Hope, walking toward them with the gun over her shoulder. As she drew near, Krystal waved, and Hope raised her arms. A rabbit hung from each hand, swinging by its ears.
I like this story because it moves; it proceeds relentlessly forward with conflict after conflict to expose the naive fantasies of this young couple to the harsh reality of the world. I also like it because the simple, fast-paced syntax is so well suited to the setting and the characters. And I like it because, ultimately, despite the blatantly contrasted symbols of the hearse and the woman Hope, the story can't be satisfactorily reduced to an aphorism. It's a story that uses event (plot) to define the characters that people it, something that writers are constantly exhorted to do, but something which is very rarely achieved.