Next Door by Tobias Wolff, 1981
The magic trick:
Veering the story in a surprising and sudden new direction at the end
This is a creepy one – in that “all that glitters in the suburbs is not gold” genre. Leaves you with a nasty, dirty feeling.
The neighbors next door are vile, it’s true. But our protagonists, obsessively watching and judging from their sad, little lives next door, well, they’re even worse. That juxtaposition alone would make the story worth reading, but there’s a twist at the end. Wolff extends the voyeuristic idea even further by making his protagonist rant about the television movie he was watching. He no longer has any interest; he knows how it will end and the predictability depresses him. Instead he launches into a very odd discussion of the plot to the movie he would write if given such an opportunity. He’s completely dropped all the threads of the story – no more discussion of the neighbors next door or his wife. It’s kind of crazy, and more than kind of brilliant as a way to end a story. And that’s quite a trick on Wolff’s part.
I could write a better movie than that. My movie would be about a group of explorers, men and women, who leave behind their homes and their jobs and their families – everything they’ve ever known. They cross the sea and are shipwrecked on the coast of a country that isn’t on their maps. One of them drowns. Another gets attacked by a wild animal and eaten. But the others want to push on. They ford rivers and cross an enormous glacier by dogsled. It takes months. On the glacier they run out of food and for a while there it looks like they might turn on each other, but they don’t. Finally they solve their problem by eating the dogs. That’s the sad part of the movie.