“All the old kindnesses are gone,” says Clyde Brind’amour, 48, the main character in a short story from Richard Cumyn’s latest collection, The Young in Their Country: And Other Stories. Sarah Selecky’s Richard, who is 30-something in This Cake Is for the Party, says that “the now is so thin. There’s just not much now to go around, is there? As soon as you grasp it, it’s gone.” These new books from the veteran Cumyn and the relative newcomer Selecky present a number of similar relationships between the young, the old, the now and the gone.
Aging, loss, the difficulty of living in the moment: serious concerns, although both of the previous quotations are funny in context. Clyde’s lament is ironic because he is a Peter Pan who scorns his elders as “geezers,” and Richard jokes that he is giving up “the now” for the “much more satisfying” concept of then. But a question arising from these books is whether Cumyn and Selecky are too serious with the aforementioned themes, too persuaded in advance that aging, for example, is a tribulation more than anything else.
Yes, it really can be painful, and in general Selecky and Cumyn describe it with effective realism. They are a generation apart, 30-something and 50-something, and their narrators tend to reflect their ages, among other things. Both writers seem to write what they know—plus vividly imagined speculation, as when a woman thinks that as a teenager she saw the ghosts of her parents (Selecky’s “Where Are You Coming From, Sweetheart?”), or when a teacher thinks that others have x-ray vision and can see him naked (in Cumyn’s title story). Both writers imagine jobs that we might have had or could easily imagine others having: Selecky’s characters are guinea pigs in drug trials, salespeople in pyramid schemes, soy-wax candle makers, manufacturers of all-natural cleaning products, young teachers. Cumyn likes teachers, too, and writers, and tends to prefer first-person narrators, usually men, often in their fifties.
But reality can be so dull that a character enacts a fantasy of being younger than he (usually he) really is. In Cumyn’s “The Goddess Throws Down,” Clyde’s “old lady” Marie-Ange is leaving him, moving south to Phoenix to be with geezers “poised at the lip of the grave.” He dismisses older people as useless to the young, and he wants to establish a summer camp where he and Marie-Ange could teach kids “how to thrive in a careless world.” But Clyde cheats on her with one of the camp’s first employees while imagining that his new lover is one of the teenage girls helping to set up camp. He is the “careless” one, unlikely to “thrive” because he is afraid of “the grave” and unable to grow up.
Much the same thing happens in Selecky’s “Throwing Cotton” when Sanderson cheats on Anne with one of his college students. His friendship with a somewhat younger man, Flip, is antagonistic, and Flip eventually mocks him for being “older” but not “more mature.” Like Clyde, Sanderson is not as responsible as he should be, and maybe he knows it, so he resists when Anne wants a baby. But Flip understands Anne: “We all want meaning in our lives. We all want to feel significant. Why else would we choose to have babies? It’s our mortality thing.” He does not realize that he has also discovered Sanderson’s reason for cheating: “mortality” drives him to betrayal through intimacy with younger people.
When Cumyn writes very old characters into his book, the preoccupation does not change, but the stakes are even higher. In “City of My Dreams,” he imagines that an elderly man might have words of wisdom for a statuesque young woman whose companion is a “porcine type,” a “troll,” a man too old for her—although not nearly so old as Eugene Breem, married 61 years to his wife, Dotty. “What it must peel from one’s spirit to capitulate so,” he thinks. “What would he say to his granddaughter? Find somebody your own age. Pay attention to everything, relish every experience, because it’s so soon over.” Ironically, in attempting to find the young woman to tell her this, Breem neglects his wife when she needs him most.
Selecky’s book has no very old characters, but her characters on either side of the generation gap are affectionate with each other—in a seemingly wholesome way in “Paul Farenbacher’s Yard Sale” (although I was not convinced by the sudden grief at the end) but less so in “Where Are You Coming From, Sweetheart?” In that story, Selecky describes a lonely older man still aroused by thoughts of his dead wife. The man’s teenage daughter, Christine, meets another older man on a train and lets him kiss her. If he is a father figure, then Freudian taboos and complexes are possibly involved, and conflict across the generation gap has the potential to be bloody.
Cumyn is the one to go there. In “Family Day,” a 67-year-old psychotherapist (the narrator) brings a patient to his homey treatment facility to separate her from her abusive husband. She telephones her abuser, who drives out to get her, steals a shotgun from one of the therapist’s visitors, and terrorizes him and his family and friends—a thrilling scene. As the duo drives off, the narrator runs to the car and the man shoots him in the leg. The narrator later says, “I wanted him to come running up the driveway, yelling like a crazed commando, firing his insupportable weapon until all his ammunition was spent. I thought, Let him stand before us and look about him and explain himself. An idiotic fantasy.” Impulsive, at least.
Characters can fantasize anything, and it is no violation of realism when they do so. Nevertheless, I had difficulty accepting that the psychotherapist would rush at the car, and two stories later, in “My Future in Insurance,” I could not believe that a couple interrupted as they signed their divorce papers would choose to help a younger man, a total stranger, to get a job in their company. What does it mean that I did not believe these scenes, or the one I mentioned above from “Paul Farenbacher’s Yard Sale”? The quality of writing is not the issue; the prose and characterization are so good that I trust them at least as much as myself. Another answer: I am skeptical that the generation gap always involves misunderstandings and emotional extremes.
But why allow realism to be the standard of evaluation when our fantasies might say more about what our reality is? When the characters in these books reach out for older or younger people, the realism of these stories can break down to suggest a mainstream cultural fantasy involving the generation gap. No doubt the gap is real, but perhaps it does not always entail such misunderstanding. Our wishful thinking is that, consciously or unconsciously, we do not want to know how people of other ages think and feel.
Perhaps the young are afraid of the changes in becoming old—or maybe they can’t stand the thought of so many more years of the life they have already lived: embarrassment, fear, sadness. As for old age—it remains an undiscovered country for Selecky and Cumyn both, at least in these recent publications. Despite their impressive range of idiosyncratic voices, their old characters tend to be on a narrow road to death, crisis or failure. But Selecky implies, in one of her many memorable endings, that raw youth, drooping age and even death are full of potential: “The raw prawns in the bowl look like they’re melting into each other. They don’t even look like they used to be alive. They could be anything.”