Sunday, December 31, 2017

"Akhnilo" (1981)

Story by James Salter not available online.

James Salter's very short and very strange story operates much like a poem, with seductively beautiful language that invites, if not requires, close parsing. The first point to note is that the title is a made-up word not used in the story, which helps almost not at all, beyond perhaps reminding us that all fiction is "made up" (Saki shows how it's properly done in "Sredni Vashtar," where the made-up words are given meaning). The main character, Fenn, is wakened by noises in the night that might be an intruder. He gets out of bed to investigate. It's hard to know exactly what's going on—which among other things makes it annoying if you're not in the right mood—but the supposition that it's an intruder gradually shifts to the thought that it is some sort of animal activity. Fenn is a carpenter age 34 (so note that he has outlived Jesus by a year), with a degree from Dartmouth in history. By those markers he is both privileged and humble. Having eliminated intruders and animals, he next seems to decide it's some kind of divine sign. He is being called. He leaves the house by leaping out of a second-floor window—well, it's much more cautious than leaping, but it's still unnecessarily dramatic when there are probably stairs in the house. Now Fenn begins to remember his past alcoholism and rehab and he decides this is all about redemption. And maybe it is. But I think it's mostly overdone. It's the kind of story that's written by someone who is very good at writing, but not as good at constructing narrative. And already it feels dated—the privileged white man who became an alcoholic, then a carpenter, cultivating a hobby of carving birds from wood. It's a story that might seem better after an hour or two of chewing it over in a college English class, or writing a paper about it. I might like it more after I finish writing this. But the basic elements—privileged white guy, alcoholic, carpenter—just seem so tired even in conception. Less so in 1981, perhaps. Wikipedia contributes to my dimming sense of this story with points like "widely regarded as one of the most artistic writers of modern American fiction" or quoting Richard Ford: "It is an article of faith among readers of fiction that James Salter writes American sentences better than anybody writing today." I won't dispute the poetic vigor of the language, but I'm really not sure it adds up to anything very impressive.

American Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Raymond Carver and Tom Jenks

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