Walker Brothers Cowboy by Alice Munro, 1968
The magic trick:
Providing enough cues to the reader about possible backstories for the characters without making it too obvious
To my great disappointment, this story turned out to feature neither ’60s pop singers The Walker Brothers or ’90s Texas Ranger Chuck Norris. Turns out it was still pretty good as is.
The story really hits the perfect balance of said vs. unsaid. I’ve written this about other stories on the blog, I’m sure, but it bears repeating because it is such a crucial magic trick in literature. The writer has to constantly measure how to distribute the clues, the little cues to the reader about what is happening in the story and what it means. Make it too obvious and the story falls flat. Make it to obtuse and the story falls flat. It’s a tough thing to manage!
Well, here Munro is in prime form. We see the story’s events through the eyes of a young girl, so her lack of mature comprehension automatically negates the chance that the cues to the reader will be too obvious. The task for the writer then is to drop enough hints about the true nature of the events for the reader to be able to analyze their importance.
It is clear to us that the narrator’s father has some kind of past with Nora, the woman he meets during his sales call. But what? Why weren’t they married? What happened? We can’t count on the narrator to tell us. She doesn’t understand either. It’s all news to her. So we get this nifty little observation instead.
The narrator notes the religious picture in Nora’s home and notes that she must be a Roman Catholic. Then she reveals that her grandmother wasn’t fond of Catholics. OK. The story moves on. Near the very end, the narrator repeats the derogatory phrase her grandmother used to say about Catholics. Nothing too big, but a clear reminder to the reader that this is important.
Now we have the tools we need to analyze the story. What happened to Nora and Ben? We still don’t know, but we certainly can assume and imagine. And that’s quite a trick on Munro’s part.
“You two,” my father says. “Do you want to go outside and amuse yourselves?”
Amuse ourselves how? Anyway I want to stay. The front room is more interesting than the kitchen, though barer. There is a gramophone and a pump organ and a picture on the wall of Mary, Jesus’ mother – I know that much – in shades of bright blue and pink with a spiked band of light around her head. I know that such pictures are found only in the homes of Roman Catholics and so Nora must be one. We have never known any Roman Catholics at all well, never well enough to visit in their houses. I think of what my grandmother and my Aunt Tena, over in Dungannon, used to always say to indicate that somebody was a Catholic. So-and-so digs with the wrong foot, they would say. She digs with the wrong foot. That was what they would say about Nora.
“Never does,” the man said. He pushed his canvas cart down the corridor. “You better hustle. They must have locked most of the exits by now.”