Down the Tubes in a Bleak Landscape
Do we like certain stories at certain periods in our lives? Do they hold up years later as favorites? I pondered this question while what I thought was my favorite story “Why Don’t You Dance?” by Raymond Carver lay open on my coffee table, 25 years after I first read it
I remembered my outrage when a prominent poetry editor of that era, the late 70s and early 80s, scribbled on one of my several poems he was rejecting, “There is something in your work that says ‘everything hopeful goes down the tubes.’” He asked if I had any more work to look at, preferably cheerier?
So I read Carver’s story again and was dumbstruck by how cynical I was then and must still be now, to be so moved by his bleak landscape of hopelessness, of everything going down the tubes.
“Why Don’t You Dance” is written in an unvarying linguistic tone. No high notes or cadences. It is like monks’ chanting in an empty stone cathedral, its sparse dialogue creating a loud and lasting echo.
The distance that Carver creates between his three nameless characters in close proximity with one another is stunningly executed by his use of anonymity. He calls them “the Man”, “the Boy”, “the Girl”. There is desolation awaiting us. You can feel it pulling you in.
The story begins with “the Man” who has dragged his worldly possessions into his driveway as an act of ridding himself of his wife, who’d already left him. It is a ritual purging that made him feel better.
A young couple sees the furniture and, thinking it’s a yard sale, begin to talk about whether or not they should make the man an offer on the bed. The girl bounces on the mattress and tells the boy he should try it. He does. There’s a lamp. A sofa. A TV. A record player and box of old records. There’s even barware to complete this surreal tableau from a once-furnished home. Now, the man has at last given up on his illusory domesticity. She is gone and there is no domesticity without her.
The Girl is far more energetic and aggressive and vital than the Boy she is about to set up home with, and he follows whatever she suggests. He is awkward and passive. She advises him to offer the owner ten dollars less than he asks for, no matter what. Soon, they have every item for almost nothing, including the record player that, like all the other electronics, are plugged into long extensions cords that snake into the house; the only source of power left for the inanimate objects.
Is it an act of prophecy that the Boy and the Girl’s future of togetherness is blighted because they are taking the unwanted stuff from a house where giving up on romance has already happened? Do the objects have a life that they can pass on?
They all start drinking in the yard as if they’re friends at cocktail hour.
“Why don’t you dance?” The Man says as his one of his favorite oldies scratches out its tune on the record player sitting on a cabinet in the driveway. After some hesitancy, the couple do get up and dance. They are tipsy. The young man feels awkward. He blushes and sits down while the Man gets up and stumbles around to dance with the Girl too. She is nice to him.
The Man gives them the records for free. Later, the Girl can’t make her disquiet about the pathetic old guy go away.
“Junk, he gave us all his junk,” she tells a friend, and then another, about that afternoon. No matter how many times she tells the story she is still spooked about that afternoon. She cannot stop talking about it. Is it prophetic and she’s too young to know, or is it simply someone getting rid of ordinary things that once meant something?
It’s a really short story with a very long reach.
I stopped writing poetry about ten years after I read “Why Don’t You Dance?” because I finally did see that in all of my poetry there was a deeply cynical message I had no idea I was feeling. Now, I leave it to masters of the short story to give us their landscape of internal disquiet and failing optimism.
I have found a different, more empathetic and sometimes humorous voice in my short prose, I think. Certainly I have to find that old rejection note and see if I can locate the editor. I’ll send him something new. Something more cheery.
To read an excerpt of Ina’s short story, ‘Hush Money’, CLICK HERE.
‘Hush Money’ is now available in its entirety in Memoir, Vol.1 in iTunes Memoir Vol.1.