Thursday, December 07, 2017

"Walking Out" (1980)

Read story by David Quammen online.

David Quammen's remarkable story is another fine entry in the man vs. nature type of adventure story. In fact, it reminds me of Jack London's "To Build a Fire" because it's a similar premise: a wintry scene in the woods threatens death if the protagonists aren't both smart and careful. Published much later in the century, Quammen's story also has a father-and-son element that is more typical of post-'60s generation gap dynamics. The main character is the 11-year-old boy David who is visiting his father in Montana. The parents are divorced, somewhat acrimoniously we understand from scattered clues, another familiar postwar element. The story is not attempting to invent anything new. It's just using what it has. So the father, who appears to have reinvented himself as a mountain man after the failed marriage, is pitifully needy for his son's approval, even as he overcompensates trying to impress him with his skills. For his part, the boy has little interest in being an outdoorsman. Off they go on a moose hunt, and it is isolated enough that they have to worry about things like bears and getting lost. On the last day of their brief foray into the woods, bad luck strikes. An unseasonal snowfall makes everything treacherous, and then some bad accidents happen. Now, severely injured and possibly bleeding out, they must get out of the woods and find help. Though the story goes to a basically unbelievable place in the end it is riveting all the way there. It's on the long side for a story, and it starts slow, but it holds interest first as a study of a father and son estranged against their will by circumstances, and then, once the snow falls, as a crackling adventure story. The language describing events as they happen is powerful and straightforward, but it's also good on what the boy is going through, and on what he sees his father going through. The point of view is the boy's, fading to omniscience for the details beyond his understanding. We are never inside the head of the father yet we come to know him well—even understanding him better than the boy, through his words and actions. The ending is a little overdetermined, and frankly hard to believe, with mishandled emphases. But you might disagree, and it hardly means getting there isn't worth the ride. This is a good one.

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

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