The Cold Outside by John Burnside, 2007
The magic trick:
Giving the protagonist what he needs but in doing so only highlighting tragedy surrounding his life
You know you’re in for a sad story when the first sentence tells you: “When the cancer came back, I wasn’t surprised.” In fact, things get even bleaker from there. Bill’s marriage functions on isolation. He is kept from the daughter he loves by the gulf that separates her and her mother. His life is not exactly joyous.
So when the story shifts in the middle to focus on an interaction Bill has with a hitchhiker he picks up in his truck, the reader likely assumes this will be Bill’s redemption. And you’d be right. It is his redemption, except that somehow it only takes the sadness established in the story’s first half and ratchets it up a few more notches.
Our narrator, Bill, is so hard up for basic human connections, he is finding solace in what should be an otherwise forgettable conversation with a stranger. It warms him and feeds some need. But in doing so it only highlights the tragedy of his life. And that’s quite a trick on Burnside’s part.
“Ah, yes,” he said. “Home.” He dwelled on the word for the moment before moving on. “Soon be Christmas,” he said.
“Not long.” I looked over at him; he was watching me, attentive, taking me in, maybe searching for something that he thought I wanted to keep hidden—and I had an image of Caroline, of how she had watched me like that sometimes when she was younger, hoping for a clue to what lay behind the façade that she thought I was working so hard to maintain. Maybe that was what made me say what I said next, surprising myself, and the boy. I didn’t say it very loudly, and I wasn’t really speaking to him, but it was loud enough to be audible above the noise of the engine. “One last Christmas,” I said. “Better make the most of it, eh?”
It wasn’t what I’d intended to say, though I wasn’t sorry I’d said it.
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