Saturday, November 05, 2016

"Tall Tales From the Mekong Delta" (1990)

Read story by Kate Braverman online.

Kate Braverman's story is so strange and powerful, yet so full of such familiar elements, that already it feels like some classic of the post-Carver story era. The unnamed woman at the center of it is 38 years old, a creative writing teacher, and a recovering cocaine addict. One day, on her way to an AA meeting, a man approaches her and makes blunt overtures. "You're bad," he says. "You're one of those bad girls from Beverly Hills. I've had my eye on you." His name is Lenny, he says he is a Vietnam veteran, he wants to go out with her, and it turns out he has been following her for two weeks. He knows all kinds of things about her life. To us as readers, he is instantly, unnervingly creepy. But the narrator appears susceptible to him, which creates a wonderful gnawing tension. Every time she gives him another inch we want to scream. She gets rid of him but he always shows up again, within days or weeks. He's got a slick line of talk, says he can show her the "other side" of life. He says he works with Colombians as a drug runner, flying in product twice a month. She gets rid of him but he always shows up again. Gradually, Lenny is getting her to go along with him somehow, and everything he does for her is for the worse. He starts her up smoking cigarettes again. He is working on her to use cocaine again. He seems to have no compunctions, though he's also smart enough to hang back and let her have her way when she asserts herself. Then he just goes to work on her again. It's unpleasant and sickening to watch her give in to him, yet we're helpless to do anything but keep looking. Lenny is such an unlikely monster, or I am so naïve, that I think the story amounts to an allegory, with Lenny as the embodiment of addiction, something like that. It's perhaps trite, taken that way, yet Lenny and the woman's response to him are so compelling it doesn't really occur to us until later. He has an extraordinary power that reaches out and affects us too. He may be unbelievable, but he is believable in the moment, and that's enough. The woman is likable on the merits: single, nearing 40, teaching creative writing, leading an independent life, taking care of herself. But she is also, as events show, a real addict battling real addictions, which are battles not always won. In the end she's buying cigarettes by the carton and drinking again. There's no sign this one is anything but a loss, and somehow it's heartbreaking.

The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories, ed. Tobias Wolff

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