‘Camping Out’ by James Wilcox

Camping Out by James Wilcox, 1981

The magic trick:

Playing our protagonist’s petty personal battles against a backdrop of danger and fatalistic doom

Merry Christmas Eve to you. This story might not spruce up your holiday cheer, but it comes highly recommended by me. For whatever that’s worth.

Donna Lee is a young attorney in Louisiana (or maybe Mississippi) who seems to have a passive aggressive axe to grind with her brother-in-law. Why? We don’t really know. Does anyone really know why we find ourselves in these strange competitive relationships with imaginary points to prove? No, probably not.

The story does an excellent job of showing her wage this passive war during a Christmas camping trip. Donna Lee’s need for control comes in stark contrast against several signs of danger that crop up throughout the story. So what we get is a strange back-and-forth between petty personal battles and a feeling of fatalistic doom.

And that’s quite a trick on Wilcox’s part.

The selection:

“Let’s talk, then. I’m not really tired, either.” She put her hand on Donna Lee’s arm. “You know, dear, you’ve never told me what my chances are.”

“What chances?”

“Of being evicted. All day long it’s been preying on my mind. I just don’t know what I’ll do if I’m tossed out. I love that little apartment so much, and it costs hardly anything.”

“I thought the trains drove you crazy.”

“I’m used to that by now. So tell me, dear, what do you think? I want to know.”

Pettiness, Donna Lee thought. No matter where she went she would be surrounded by pettiness. She felt weary and old, old as the cranky old landlady who was squabbling about the eviction. “I’m going outside, Mrs. Norris. We’ll talk about it later – at the office.”

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