The Boys by Ethan Coen, 1998
The magic trick:
That classic Coen Bros. blend of humor, violence, cynicism and possibility
Ethan Coen once wrote a story for the New Yorker, and this is that story.
A man is taking his two young sons on a camping trip in South Dakota. (It’s not difficult to imagine that these boys – Davey and Bart – are in fact some version of young Joel and Ethan.) The trip doesn’t go well, nor does it go terribly. But that almost doesn’t matter. The point is how the father feels that it is going. And if you ask him, it’s not going well at all. The boys are difficult to manage in different ways and seem to reflect the father’s own frustrations and failings back at him.
Remarkably – but I guess maybe not surprisingly – it captures that particular Coen Bros. charm from their films. The way cynicism and possibility, humor and the threat of violence, blend into one somehow. What it lacks from that Coen Bros. film magic is the sense of setting. You can recall each Coen Bros. movie by where it’s set. I’m not sure this story really evokes South Dakota all that well. But maybe it didn’t really care to anyway. What it is is a funny, sad, stressful, semi-sweet slice of life.
And that’s quite a trick on Coen’s part.
Bart, who had finally learned to talk but chose to do so only at odd moments, was three years younger than Davey and had developed an obsessive interest in “Sesame Street.” He enjoyed all the books and videos, but for some months now his chiefest interest had been a catalogue of Sesame Street products. He preferred the catalogue to any of the products themselves and would sit hunched over it for hours at a time, carefully examining each page. When he reached the last page, he would gaze at it, turn it, study the back cover at length, then flip the catalogue over and start again. He insisted that his parents mend each small tear with Scotch tape, and, by virtue of this and the many dog-ears and wrinkles that had accumulated over the months, the catalogue was now about twice its original thickness.
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