Friday, December 26, 2008

"Passion," by Alice Munro

A little turn on the old adage: "When the teacher is ready, the student will appear." The wonderful, the spectacular Gretchen Tremoulet, my ex-student and friend, brought me to Alice Munro. I had circled over Munro's work all through the '80's and '90's, watched her appear year after year in the O. Henry and Best American Short Story (BASS) anthologies, and I'd heard our best writers place her high in the list of writers' writers -- somehow I couldn't get there. In the abstract I honored Munro because she stayed with the short story form, much in the way Andre Dubus did, not letting the publishing industry push her out of the approach to fiction that is her art and wheelhouse. But in the case of Munro, as with Updike, we have longevity going for us -- and thus a long career of writing in which we can watch the artist come to full blossom. I've often said the short story, like a poem, is actually perfectable (we have to think that, even if it might not be absolutely true), in a way, sorry, the novel is not, and Alice Munro regularly approaches the rarified air with her stories.

"Passion" appeared in Munro's Runaway collection, one of a number of momentous achievements in that single volume. In this story, our third person limited point of view character Grace returns many years later to a town and a neighborhood where life-changing events occurred back when she was in her early twenties. Driving through this town and finding the old places, almost lost in their changed new world, Grace recalls the events. She had come to this town to work when she was 20 and had become friends with an interesting family -- in fact, it developed that she came very near to marrying one of the sons, falling into a relationship with him because it was so easy to, a matter of convenience. They were both ready to marry, they supposed, and there they were together, and so Destiny seemed to have spoken. However, Grace was not entirely finished with her education, and she was also a little more hot blooded than her prospective husband, who was stable to a fault and a bit boring it must be said, and Grace mourned the loss of excitement and passion that was bound to accompany her tying the knot with this man.

It happened that the family was gathering for a holiday. Grace did look forward to this, because she had a fascination and a soul connection to her prospective husband's parents, who were the original attraction. Holiday at that homestead, and the convergence of their whole family, was something Grace found herself wanting to be a part of. It happened that on the first evening as family was coming together, Grace cut her foot, rather minorly actually but more than could be handled by a bandade, and while everyone sympathized on the front step of the house as she surveyed the damage, her prospective husband's half brother Neil (a doctor, speaking of Destiny) came up the driveway to save the day. Neil, smelling of alcohol and dashing in his confidence, cupped Grace's arch in his healing hand and opined that the injury would take a stitch. And so he drove her to the ER at the local hospital where he was a staff MD and swiftly closed the wound. While they were in the emergency room, Grace's husband-to-be, Neil's brother, arrived in the waiting room and sent in the message he was there to take her home. With Grace sitting there, Neil told the nurse to tell his brother that they had left already. The nurse said, "He'll know you're here because your car's outside." Neil said, "I'm parked in the doctor's lot in the back." "Veeeery clever," the nurse said, and Grace was listening to all this and was into it. Neil looked at her and said, "You don't really want to go home yet, do you?" This brassy presumption on Neil's part was the sort of adventure and passion Grace had feared she would never see again as she slipped into a staid marriage without much thought simply because Destiny seemed to have spoken. "You don't really want to go home yet, do you?" Neil said to her in the emergency room. And Munro writes something like: "No," Grace said as if the word was written on the wall and she was simply reading it. The two slide out of the hospital by a back door and have an adventurous afternoon that turns out to have been the end of Grace's relationship with that family and the beginning of her real life, the one Destiny really did have in store for her.

Because this is a long short story, and very quiet and civilized, it is much like reading a novel. It has two more "turns" of story line than most stories, almost as many as Gatsby which might be four times as long. You do not put down a Munro short story and go, "Huh?" Follow her thread, and you will be rewarded. This is just one of the stories of Munro we could talk about. I raise high a toast, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, to Lady Gretchen for friendship and showing me the way to Alice Munro.

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