Thursday, May 10, 2018

"Train" (1972)

Story by Joy Williams not available online.

Like first sentences, single-word titles are a bit of an art form in their own right. In this series, we've seen a few different ways to do it: "Akhnilo" (made-up word), "Cathedral" (portentous image), "Charles" (character), "Departures" (poignant image), "Helping" (multifaceted), "Moonwalk" (historical specific), and so on. Joy Williams's choice, for the last story in the collection edited by Tobias Wolff, is pretty good, more or less in the multifaceted vein. In the first place, the events in this story take place on a train ride from D.C. to Florida. In the second place, adults are modeling behavior for children to learn from. The two main characters are 10-year-old girls, Danica and Jane. Danica has spent the summer with Jane and Jane's family while Danica's mother takes the time to sell her house and prepare for a second marriage. It's September now and the train is bearing them all home—Danica, Jane, and Jane's parents. Danica and Jane are at a stage where they are a little tired of one another, while each still recognizes the other is all she has. The summer is ending and both have trepidations about the immediate future. Meanwhile, Jane's parents are your basic awful couple, full of sarcasm and bile toward one another, which they cheerfully broadcast at will to both girls. Late in the story Danica asks Jane's father, "Do you think Jane and I will be friends forever?" He responds, "Definitely not. Jane will not have friends. Jane will have husbands, enemies, and lawyers." He then goes on, "I'm glad you enjoyed your summer, Dan, and I hope you're enjoying your childhood. When you grow up, a shadow falls. Everything's sunny and then this big goddamn wing or something passes overhead." Note the momentary lapse into Salinger in this key passage, perhaps the most important in the story. Jane's father is probably right about Jane's future, as this story is particularly good at etching the characters of the two girls. As for the bickering adult couple, their fighting seemed more comical than sad. Their putdowns are too often too witty, and so is much of their behavior—they have to be entertaining each other at least a little. When Jane's mother passes a note to Danica for Jane's father, for example, he eats it without reading it. They just don't seem that embittered. There's not the feeling of two people clawing each other apart, as seen in fractured family tales elsewhere. I'm saying that like it's a bad thing, I know. It actually feels like relief that there might be some hope for this relationship. I'm just not sure that's what was intended—which maybe dates it some.

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

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