The Emerald Light In The Air by Donald Antrim, 2014
The magic trick:
Measuring the protagonist’s emotional frame of mind by how often the narrative veers into backstory tangents
Shades of Joyce Carol Oates’ “Upon The Sweeping Flood” here and more than mere shades of “Death Of A Traveling Salesman” by Eudora Welty. That’s pretty impressive company, and Antrim recalls both.
He uses Oates’ patented brand of constant looming danger in the air. And he flat out lifts bits of Welty’s plot – the wrecked car, the epiphany in the strange, rural home.
This story’s essential magic trick is something else, though. It’s the move back and forth between past and present during the story’s first three quarters. The pain of past losses mixes with Billy’s present with no boundaries. It’s all agony and despair. It’s as if his present feelings and activities aren’t enough to outweigh the overwhelming gloom of yesterday. That is until he wrecks his car and has that aforementioned Eudora Welty ephiphany.
Finally, Billy’s present tense shocks him out of his own head and forces him to consider someone else’s life and death. Tellingly then, the story no longer shifts back and forth from past to present. He’s locked in on what is happening now, and one can imagine him finally moving forward. And that’s quite a trick on Antrim’s part.
He turned on the headlights and the wipers.
In the hospital, he’d had hallucinations. He remembered looking in his bathroom mirror—it was made of metal, not glass—and seeing his face deformed. He’d known better than to believe what he saw, but, on the other hand, he hadn’t known better, far from it: there it had been in front of him, his bent, misshapen skull. Now, as he drove into the forest, Billy recalled that, for a long time, the time of the locked ward and his sick brain and the torn-up suicide notes to Julia, he’d felt the burning. He’d felt it in his temple. It was, somehow, he knew, both imaginary and real, a beckoning, an itch, a need for a bullet. Of course he’d thought always of the Browning, of loading it and getting into position on the living-room floor, or maybe out back in the barn, maybe laying down a tarp first.
Subscribe to the Short Story Magic Tricks Monthly Newsletter to get the latest short story news, contests and fun.