Mike Force

What is it called when you read a short story and you don't understand it but you think you do? This must happen with fiction all the time—but it's hard to talk about, because reading is a private experience, and the only thing you have to go on are your own impressions, and if your impressions are wrong, or if your focus slips, or if you get a text message and look at your phone and then rejoin the story at the wrong spot on the page, the end result of putting a bunch of time into reading a short story might be that you walk around for the rest of your life with a false understanding of it.

Some combination of those things happened to me with Charles D'Ambrosio's "Up North," published in the New Yorker back in 2005. Having read the story many times over the last 10 years—I recommend reading it over your Thanksgiving holiday (on the New Yorker's website or in D'Ambrosio's book The Dead Fish Museum)—I now see it is a Thanksgiving masterpiece that depicts a family and the chasms between people who are ostensibly close. But I didn't see it that way the first time I read it. I'm such a D'Ambrosio fanboy, I can tell you where I was standing when I first started reading it, just like I can tell you where I was when I read his stories "Screenwriter" (in the aisle seat of an airplane) and "The High Divide" (in a Tully's coffee that's now demolished) in the New Yorker.

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When I first read "Up North," I was leaning against a counter at the QFC on Broadway and Pike. I noticed right away that the story didn't have a tour de force opening like "Screenwriter." Nor did it start with an emotionally devastating little vignette about someone's inability to communicate, like "The High Divide." When it came to appreciating "Up North," being a D'Ambrosio fanboy wasn't doing me any favors. I remember looking at the bird in the artwork accompanying the story, and seeing the phrase "like fledgling birds" in the first sentence, and flipping to the very end and seeing the word "fluttering" in the last sentence. As I read, my first impression was that "Screenwriter" and "The High Divide" had been narrated by more overtly compelling narrators, and some dumb, embarrassing region of my brain did a cynical calculation like: "Oh, the New Yorker's letting him be soft and quiet this time because he was flashier the last two times." It's strange how much whatever's tumbling through a reader's mind can warp a piece of writing.

I could see there were good things about it. It was a hunting anecdote shot through with pain and silence. The part I liked the best was the part where the conflict is most apparent, the part where, late in the story, four men go out to unlawfully poach a wild turkey. The cruelty of conversation was well done. But, overall, I couldn't help but notice that "Up North" didn't have any images like that ballerina who lights herself on fire in "Screenwriter" or the dad who serves his son a bowl of nails with milk in it in "The High Divide." In contrast, "Up North" has a decidedly slower pace and a fluffy opener. It's narrated by a sensitive man named Daly. It begins:

We angled our heads back and opened our mouths like fledgling birds. Smoke gave the cool air a faintly burned flavor, an aftertaste of ash. A single flake lit on my wife's eyelash, a stellar crystal, cold and intricate. I blew a warm breath over her face, melting the snow.

Maybe if I were a straight guy, the idea of a snowflake on a beautiful woman's eyelash would have carried an inherent charge, would have had some implicit heat—after all, the wife is "flawless, like some kind of figurine"—but it left me cold. Its serenity seemed dull—soft, fluffy, quiet, birdlike. The more I read, the more this misimpression grew icicles. The point of the story seemed vague, buried under a snowbank.

It takes work to appreciate fiction. It's taken me 10 years to see that "Up North" isn't snowy descriptive extraneousness plus a really good hunting scene. It wasn't until last summer, reading "Up North" in a hot square of sunshine in my apartment, that a deeper significance revealed itself, as if the snow that had been distracting me had finally melted. It turns out that every detail in "Up North" points to a vast subtext about men and women and how they express (or don't express) sexual shame. The story's true subject is how men and women torture each other and how gender roles inflame that pain. In my dwelling on the supposedly "best" scene in the story, the hunting scene with the men, and seeing nothing much else of value in the soft, subtle, full-of-birds story, I was ironically enough taking sides, without knowing it, in the gendered conflict the story explores.

I'm not the only reader who missed the feminist subtext. A year after it appeared in the New Yorker, "Up North" was published in The Dead Fish Museum, and when Meghan O'Rourke reviewed that book in the New York Times Book Review, she didn't mention sexual shame or the fraught terrain of heterosexual relationships. Her review was titled "The Man's Guide to Hunting and Fishing," and it described D'Ambrosio's stories as "hypermasculine" in the mode of Hemingway, "full of hunting and fishing and drinking," and as traversing "Carveresque territory," specifically "the charged relationships between fathers and sons, drifters and workers, in the outskirts of the American Northwest."

She, too, missed the ways in which D'Ambrosio admits (and regrets) the boy's club nature of short-story writing, and uses Daly's character to challenge the stereotype of the hypermasculine Pacific Northwest minimalist. But I should talk; I made exactly the same mistake as O'Rourke did. She and I were both distracted by the overt masculine symbols and conflicts, and focused on them because they were recognizable and easier to digest.

One thing I didn't even notice the first time I read the story is that after Daly breathes the flake of snow off his wife eye, she gets out her makeup. The wife's name is Caroline, and she and he are headed to a cabin for Thanksgiving where her parents and their hunting buddies and their wives are waiting. I didn't even notice the oddness of Caroline feeling the need to put on makeup right then; "grimacing," Caroline examines herself in a "small round mirror she'd pulled from her purse." Daly thinks the "shallow cup of the compact looked to be holding a kind of flesh dust, a spare skin." He watches her stroke blush "on either side of her face, magically lifting her cheekbones." He watches her trace "her lips lightly with a subdued shade of red and suddenly she was smiling." Once her makeup is on, before Daly gets the car started again, this happens:

Two men in orange caps crossed in front of us, rifles slung over their shoulders. They stopped in the road and waved, the ears beneath their caps like pink blossoms in the raw cold, and then they bumbled into the woods. I stared at their fresh footprints in the snow.

"You know them?" I asked.

"No," she said.

And then there's a section break.

The seemingly inconsequential dialogue didn't seem to justify the section break. I wish I could tell you I registered the silence of those passing men, their cold ears like "pink blossoms," and the hardness of the wife's "No," but I didn't. Like the wife's makeup, I just thought it was immaterial scene-setting stuff—it's winter, they're on the road, lots of men are out hunting.

The first sign that Caroline's application of makeup was a crucial character detail, a lens into her inner world, is in the next scene—but again, I just breezed right past it. Daly and Caroline get to the cabin, and one of the wives there is Sandy Rababy, whose husband, Steve, is a partner in the accounting firm founded by Caroline's father. Rababy is a brilliant fictional name—believable as a name but repellent no matter how you pronounce it. (It sounds like "rabies" and it has a "baby" in it.) And "Sandy" is a clever first name because it reminds you of resurfacing something, and Sandy is into cosmetic surgery. She turns to Daly at lunch, while Steve and Caroline's father are out on some mysterious errand, and says to him:

"Hey, Daly, what about these lips?" Sandy said, sliding the torn page of a magazine toward me. She'd had cheek implants and was currently in the market for new lips. I was meant to offer a proxy opinion for all men. The woman in the magazine was pouting sadly or seductively, it was hard to tell, and she was looking confused or far off into the distance, also hard to tell.

"Those are Caroline's lips," I said.

Sandy held the page to her nose, and then looked at Caroline, who modeled a little moue.

"You're right, they are," Sandy said. "I want your lips."

"They're spoken for," my wife said, touching my knee under the table, quaintly.

Then there's another section break. One can see how Sandy's obsession with plastic surgery echoes Caroline's compact of "flesh dust," her "spare skin." The women in the story evidently feel the need to perform prettiness. But Daly, who can't decide if he sees sadness or seductiveness in the model's face, has no need for such performances—and yet he's forced into offering a "proxy opinion for all men."

It becomes clear that Steve and the other men are out in the woods hunting and drinking. When they get back, Sandy Rababy chastises them: "The forest is full of drunks with guns," she says. "Girls don't like that."

This line—"Girls don't like that"—is the final sentence before another section break. These section breaks are clues to the reader that those sentences are important, although in the reader's defense, these are pretty subtle cues. We don't know where we are yet among all these characters, whose side to be on, even how to assess Daly's marriage with Caroline. The only thing that seems clear by this point in the story is that Caroline is beautiful, the other women are intent on being as pretty as she is, and the marriage between Daly and Caroline is quite healthy, reinforced by that quaint touching under the table. That's the biggest and most superficial ruse yet.

Daly is a hilariously cruel name for a sensitive man to have, not just because there's a whiff of foreverness in the connotation of monotony ("daily"), but also because it's emasculating (it sounds like a feminized form of the already androgynous Dale). And "Daly" is not far from "dolly" or "doily." In an essay last year about D'Ambrosio's nonfiction, the writer and critic Trisha Ready pointed out that "if we are talking about gender as an interior process rather than a manifestation, then perhaps D'Ambrosio's writing itself serves a kind of maternal function." And the moment I read that, I thought of Daly, a character I'd never been able to fully figure out, a man with arguably feminine instincts, or at least not traditionally masculine instincts. He's a nurturer, he's not predatory, he's not eager to announce his opinion or rank other people's appearances, he has no proneness toward violence, and he doesn't know how to shoot a gun. He is not one of the boys, not one of his father-in-law's gun-toting friends.

Daly tells us early in the story, right after the scene with the lips, "My wife was raped the summer she turned eighteen." A sentence like that—shocking, upsetting—glares in the snow. You can't not have seen it. You can't not remember it. But for years I had trouble connecting it to the rest of the story. For years I thought of it as luridly out of place. How was it relevant to this otherwise muffled, snowy, slowly told hunting anecdote? He also tells us that Caroline's parents don't know she'd been raped, and that she was reluctant to even tell him. Daly recalls that when she told him, he "felt instantly that I'd known all along." He recognized it as "the elusive thing I'd been trying to put my hands on."

For months afterward I found myself drifting away from conversations as I rehearsed the scenario in my mind. What I imagined was horrible for me—the rain and the bushes, a black man, a knife. I saw things. I saw the underpants she'd have to pull on again when he was done, I saw her walk home in a world suddenly gone strange, I saw the mud she'd have to wash off the backs of her thighs and the way the stream of gray would circle the drain, I saw pebbles embedded in her knees, I saw her days later, alone and crying, dropping the knife the first time she cut into a tomato, I saw the halved red fruit on the white cutting board the next morning, the spilled seeds now dried to the plastic. I saw these things, I imagined them. Our life together took on a second intention, and a sock on the floor would stop me cold. My eyes would lose focus and I'd daydream, trying to capture the moment and make it less strange, trying to inhabit the past, intervening. I wanted to be there, and, failing, I developed instead a tendency to ascribe every dip and depression to the rape, organizing our shared life around it, carrying it forward into our future like a germ.

This incredible paragraph is made out of Daly's worry, and the writing itself has been worried into perfection. You don't even notice Daly's comment about the black man and the knife the first time through the story, but it really sticks out the second time, when you know in advance that the perpetrator of the rape wasn't a black man. In fact, it was one of Caroline's dad's friends. In fact, it's one of the guys here in this cabin, at Thanksgiving dinner. It turns out the black man is a phantom of the Daly imagination.

There is the writing as it exists on the page, and the writing as it is perceived by a reader's brain, and I have to fess up: I don't remember this paragraph being in "Up North" the first time I read it in the magazine. (It was. I went back to the New Yorker's archives and checked.) I may have been blinded by "My wife was raped the summer she turned eighteen," or I may have been retroactively blinded by my awe of the coming hunting scene, or maybe I got a text message while I was reading that paragraph and rejoined the story at the wrong spot on the page, but all I can tell you is when I read "Up North" again years later, this paragraph (rain/bushes/black man/knife/drain/tomato/sock) stood out as news to me—as a shock. That's when I realized I'd missed the story's whole point.

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You can see how if you're trying to quickly read "Up North" while standing in a grocery store and somehow miss Daly's misguided fantasy sequence about the rain and knife and black man and tomato, the whiplash upon discovering that the actual rapist is one of Dad's friends—and that Dad doesn't know—doesn't happen.

Another crucial detail about Daly and Caroline's marriage comes right away: Caroline has never had an orgasm. Daly tells us:

I believed that I would remedy that problem, that it was merely a matter of prowess and patience, of a deeper love and a greater persistence, but no matter what we did—the books, the scents, the oils, all the hoodoo of love—none of it changed a thing. With time, my conceit broke down. In defeat I came to feel weak and ashamed. In some way, her lack of sexual fulfillment accounted for her promiscuity: what she missed in intensity she made up for in scope. She had never been a faithful lover, either before or after our marriage; she preferred sex with strangers, which I could never be, not again. It was as if she were determined to revisit, over and over, that original moment of absolute strangeness. And yet she continued to need the scrim of familiarity I offered, so that the world would fill more sharply with the unfamiliar. Daily I lost more and more of my status as a stranger, and our marriage was like a constant halving of the distance, without ever arriving at the moment in time where, utterly familiar, I'd vanish.

This is so dense with richness, it is unimaginable to me that it didn't make a bigger impression the first time I read the story—the shame, the love, the frustration, the vanishing, that "daily." When I read the story 10 years later, the promiscuity line I remembered ("What she missed in intensity she made up for in scope"), but Daly's sense that he was disappearing because he didn't do what he thought he ought to be able to do, what a man ought to be able to do for his wife, was news to me. I don't know where my mind was.

As the men set out to go hunting, Daly sees a "flare of a meteor" in the sky but sees it "so fast that I doubted myself in the very moment of wonder." It's not like Daly isn't smart; if anything, he's so perceptive that all of his concurrent sensitivities have crippled him. On their way to the hunting blind, Daly is seized with worry about his ability to perform in front of these men. "I imagined that a kind of fraternal ridicule kept this group cohesive," he thinks, "and I didn't want to become the scapegoat who helped them bond."

I'm not going to describe the turkey-hunting scene in detail, because you really ought to just go read it, but Daly's shame among the men (one of whom, remember, raped his wife) is only rivaled by his shame vis-à-vis his wife (who won't even tell him which one of them it was). The scene is a pressure cooker of masculinity as expressed through the theater of conversation, with Steve Rababy saying things to his "friends" like: "If we got stuck here, I'd eat you. I'd have no problem with that." After a turkey gets its head blown off, its neck becoming "hardly more than a hose filling a hole in the snow with blood," Steve says over its body: "He was looking for pussy and now he's dead. Let that be a lesson to you liars." And when one of the guys starts crying about his wife who recently died, Steve says, "It was almost a year ago. It's just sentimental bullshit at this point. It's fucking weak."

Later, after the hunt, back at the cabin, everyone is eating the bird that the men have killed. The men decide (without Daly's consent) to tell the women that Daly fired the gun. Therefore, Daly, a birder who doesn't even shoot guns, has to sit there and receive the wives' congratulations on killing the bird while he secretly knows the truth, which is that he doesn't even know how to shoot. They make him a liar. In a further twist, as they all sit there eating the bird, it turns out to be so full of shot that pieces of metal keep tinking out onto people's plates. So Daly goes down as the guy who did whatever it was that resulted in disgusting pieces of shot in their food, only because he was polite enough not to correct the guys' story.

I realized this was brilliant the first time I read "Up North"—the double humiliation (humiliated in one way to the men, humiliated in another way to the men's wives)—but looking at it again, I now see it's a triple humiliation, because while the older men's wives may believe the story that Daly shot the bird, Caroline doesn't, saying, coldly, "It doesn't seem like you." By watching the men peddle their story about Daly and watching Daly not stand up for himself, she essentially watches him be violated by the bigger, tougher men. Caroline doesn't believe the story, and yet Daly's been reduced to not objecting, perhaps because he's learned that to participate in any way is to be ripped apart.

A final turn of brilliance by D'Ambrosio: As they're eating, Sandy Rababy makes a point about storytelling itself. She essentially believes that stories are a guy thing. She and Steve start quarreling, and she loses it:

Sandy reached for one of the bottles of wine that had been left to breathe on the sideboard. She rose from her chair and said, "You all just go out and hunt and sit around and swap stories. You all think it's funny." She walked unsteadily around the table. "And no one's ever hurt and it's all just stories. Ha ha. Oh, yeah." She bent as if to kiss her husband on the ear. "I hate guns," she said. "I hate guns. I hate guns." She straightened up and looked over the table as if waiting for applause, and when none came she filled her glass, and then poured the rest of the bottle of wine over her husband's head.

Sandy is deemed too drunk to keep having dinner with them and sent off to bed, but she doesn't go quietly—she has more thoughts to share about the difference between men and women.

Sandy put on a red union suit and climbed the ladder into her bunk, and we tried to resume dinner, but soon she was leaning over the edge of the bed, shouting down at us.

"That's the difference," she said.

"Go to bed, dear," Steve said.

"I want to tell you the difference!"

"O.K.," Steve said. "What's the difference?"

"You all have stories," Sandy said. "And we have secrets."

"Up North" is, of course, a story—a story narrated by a man, a story written by a man. So Sandy is not just some drunk going off here, she's not just here to pour wine over a guy's head because it's a lively image, she serves a far more clever purpose. She allows D'Ambrosio to embed a critique of the art form into his fantastically accomplished example of that art form. And the critique is that this art form is intrinsically, revoltingly masculine. While women are trustworthy and keep confidences, men turn everything—including women—into sport. Into stories. Stories like "Up North." recommended

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