Sunday, March 02, 2008

The New Yorker: "Leaving for Kenosha" by Richard Ford

In Post-Katrina New Orleans, life is a mess for everyone. Walter Hobbes gets just one day a week with his daughter Louise since his breakup with Betsy. Their divorce, it seems, was Betsy’s doing, after she fell in love with Mitch. Still, Walter is blamed by Louise (not to mention Mitch’s ex-wife Hasty). All of that seems pretty standard domestic stuff and not very interesting. But Louise, who is white, has a black schoolmate who is about to leave New Orleans to move with her family to Kenosha, Wisconsin (a cold place, we’re told several times). Walter goes into Wal-Mart to buy a card for Louise to give to Ginny, but he knows he won’t be able to satisfy Louise so he barely tries. It’s cold in Wal-Mart, and inside Walter’s SUV – like Kenosha. She hates the card, they fight, she rips it up, the divorce is mentioned. But the farewell with Ginny goes well, Walter gets a close-up look at the devastation and meets Ginny’s father, a UPS man grateful for his promotion and transfer. They’re cordial, but have little to say. As they drive away from the 9th Ward, Louise’s anger has cooled, her resentment redirected. And then we get to the point of the story, which all along has been about the mess and devastation and leaving it behind.
“And for an instant, then, Walter experienced a sensation of something about to happen around him. It wasn’t clear what. But a sensation of impendment. Neither good nor bad. Though it also occurred to him that if he could just pause in his thinking now, not follow his thoughts any further, just breathe, then this sensation would in all likelihood develop into nothing bad.”
In other words, things will get better if we let them. Is that true? And is that what the story says?

March 3, 2008: “Leaving for Kenosha” by Richard Ford


Maryanne Stahl said...

something like that. or anyway, things are OK sometimes. and sometimes they're not.

Clifford Garstang said...

Yeah. We needed Richard Ford to tell us this?

Paul Epstein said...

Actually, my opinion is very different. I rate this the best New Yorker story of the year so far by some distance (not including the latest Burnside story which I haven't read). It's hard for me to explain exactly why I liked it so much. Actually, Richard Ford is a good friend of mine and he found out about this blog, and asked me to plug it. [Last sentence obviously a joke.] But I do have a completely true anecdote to tell. A famous writer (you would all recognise his name) confused my email address with the email address of a friend of his, and asked me to post a favourable review of his work in Amazon. Absolutely true, I promise. Must have been embarrassing for him. Anyway, I'll try and get to the point now. I'm a big fan of Ford and that school generally -- Ford, Tobias Wolff and Raymond Carver. Strong points are: Compelling social realism regarding hurricance Katrina. Realistic and nuanced portrait of the central character. He's subtly racist -- see his thoughts in Walmart -- but at the same time appreciates his daughter's friendship. A very typical partially-racist attitude in the US, very well depicted. All the scenes and characters are realistic and notice the complete absence of any cliches. I'm surprised at Cliff's question: "Is that what the story says?" My former creative writing teacher (John Updike) used to say that the only way to describe "what a story says" is to give the entire story. Though of course, he had a more writerly way of saying it. And also he happens to be extremely pompous as a teacher. (No, it wasn't really John Updike, but everything else is true except his name. I did have a writing teacher that said that, and his name was not David Foster Wallace.)

Paul Epstein