Thursday, June 15, 2017

"Men Under Water" (1986)

Story by Ralph Lombreglia not available online.

Ralph Lombreglia's story is reasonably witty. It comes before Quentin Tarantino but after Jim Jarmusch. It is self-consciously ironic, distanced, referential. It's set in Cleveland, at some point in recent history after the Cuyahoga River caught on fire. The first-person narrator is Reggie, a handyman who works for the unscrupulous landlord Gunther. Gunther believes he is destined to make it as a film director. He's actually more interested in Reggie for his skills as a screenplay collaborator. Reggie is just trying to get by. It's a strange job he has as Gunther's assistant. He has to haul Gunther out of bed most mornings and take him to breakfast before their workday can begin. Gunther is an obese hairless pig who cuts corners every way he can as a landlord. Reggie seems to consider him a necessary if annoying evil. Reggie's wife Tina thinks Gunther is taking advantage of him and he should quit. Every time Reggie tries to, however, Gunther gives him a raise—one of the most improbable plot points in a story full of them. I'm willing to look at the publication date of this story and credit Lombreglia for being on the front lines of various postmodern developments: Cleveland, the monoculture of cinema immersion, and of course good old disaffected irony. Gunther is a sort of id of '80s American capitalism—later in the story it appears he gets his break with a meeting with an actual money man. Reggie is the impotent hipster stand-by yet he is the one to save the pitch meeting from Gunther's paralyzed collapse. At the end of the story is a strange scene that is also the best thing here (hence the title, I take it). Reggie and Gunther are scuba diving in Gunther's pool and must share the breathing apparatus. Reggie is out of his depth in the water, prone to panic. He and Gunther bump and entangle the equipment underwater, and their gestures and movements take on specific meaning: "You really saved me up there." "I know I did, you huge oaf." Here, underwater, somehow—at least according to this fanciful writer, whom we have no particular reason to credit—Reggie and Gunther are capable of sensitive intimate exchanges. Both have been yearning. And it's a really beautiful exchange. But I don't believe a word of it for one second. Then I wonder if that isn't exactly the intent. An odd one, for sure.

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

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