I may be wrong, but I have a feeling that only diehard Munro-heads are going to love this one. That doesn’t include me, as much as I usually admire her work. Here we have Sally, married to Alex, and they are parents to Kent, Peter and Savanna. Most of the action of the story involves a family celebration—Alex is a geologist and he’s just published his first solo paper—in some landscape that is geologically significant. Alex is odd—he doesn’t like that Sally is still breast-feeding Savanna because he is somehow embarrassed by it. There is an accident that injures Kent severely and although Alex rescues him, their relationship, which probably wasn’t going to be good anyway, is affected for years. Time speeds up: Kent goes to college and is rarely heard from; Alex dies; Peter and Savanna go to college also. And then suddenly, by accident, Sally and Kent are in touch with one another again. They meet, Sally gets a glimpse into his life, but she refuses to blame herself, or anyone else, for the way things have turned out. She even has some hope for the future.
And good for her. I like Sally a lot and her attitude at the end of the story is admirable. But wait, how did we get there? First, Peter and Savanna have disappeared from the story as much as Kent did from Sally’s life. They were, it seems, plot devices, and otherwise unnecessary to the story. And then why is Kent the way he is? Because of the accident? Because of what Sally taught him about remote islands while he was recovering? I believe that Kent might have disappeared the way he did, but I can’t imagine Sally wouldn’t have done more to try to find him. Or, having failed at that, wouldn’t have had a greater internal conflict about what caused him to take the road he did. In the end, she’s mostly thinking about herself—which is exactly Kent’s point about people—although is that who she was as a younger woman? It didn’t seem that way to me. Was she over-protective for her own good, or for the boys’? Did she breast-feed for her own sake? Or Savanna’s?
On a technical note, what’s the deal with the tense shifts? The story begins in simple past tense—story present, basically: “Sally packed devilled eggs . . .” They go on their picnic and that’s still in past tense. Then, suddenly, we shift into present: “But here she is, still letting Savanna and the milk jugs dominate the picnic. The Kool-Aid is poured, then the champagne.” And we stay in present tense through Kent’s accident, until we shift back: “He was alive.” And we stay in past tense then through the fast move through time, the discovery that Kent is in Toronto and Sally’s going there to meet with him, their tense reunion. Until the end of the story, when she leaves him in the city to go back home, and then we shift back into present: “Sally gets lost, then finds her way.” (Some nice irony in that line, since Kent appears to have been lost and, maybe, has found his way.) And then we’re in present until the last paragraph.
I could concoct some explanation about the turning points of the story—Sally’s moments of self-realization—being in present tense in order to make them more immediate. And I’ll accept that explanation or some other because I’m sure that Munro—possibly the greatest living short-story writer—did this on purpose. But whatever the reason for these tense shifts, I think they detract from the story’s impact.
I could go on and so why not. I also don’t like the story’s structure. Maybe it is too trite to say, but I think it covers too much time. I think (although maybe I’m being too much of an MFA here) that the story would be far more successful if it began at the moment that Sally is watching the Toronto fire on TV and Savanna calls to ask if she’s seen Kent. We could then hear all about Kent and Alex and the picnic (also, I’d ditch Peter, who serves no purpose in the story) in flashback. Because the real story is the meeting between Sally and Kent. That’s where the tension is and that’s where I’d like to see the focus. Hah. I can’t believe I’m telling Alice Munro how to rewrite her story. But, seriously, that’s what I would do.
One more thing. I looked at the title (DEEP-HOLES) and I asked myself, “Why the hyphen?” So I laughed out loud when Sally sees the sign at the geological site that says “Caution. Deep-Holes,” And then: “Why the hyphen? Sally thought. But who cares?” And really, who cares?
June 30, 2008: “Deep-Holes” by Alice Munro