I’m currently reading Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America. It’s tremendous, as the Pulitzer committee and many of you already know. Chapter 10 opens this way:
On January 18, 1859, in Burlington, Vermont, a little boy named John Dewey fell into a pail of scalding water. His parents applied oil to his burns and wrapped him in cotton batting, but there was another accident and the batting caught fire. The next day the child died. He was two and a half. It is a sad and terrible story, but the parents found a means of consolation, and nine months later almost to the day, on October 20, 1859, they had another baby. He was named after his dead brother.
David Foster Wallace readers will join me in thinking immediately of one of his most stunning stories, the very brief “Incarnations of Burned Children,” first published in Esquire and later collected in Oblivion: Stories. Picking up a few lines in:
and before the screen door had banged shut behind him the Daddy had taken the scene in whole, the overturned pot on the floortile before the stove and the burner’s blue jet and the floor’s pool of water still steaming as its many arms extended, the toddler in his baggy diaper standing rigid with steam coming off his hair and his chest and shoulders scarlet and his eyes rolled up and mouth open very wide and seeming somehow separate from the sounds that issued, the Mommy down on one knee with the dishrag dabbing pointlessly at him and matching the screams with cries of her own, hysterical so she was almost frozen. Her one knee and the bare little soft feet were still in the steaming pool, and the Daddy’s first act was to take the child under the arms and lift him away from it and take him to the sink, where he threw out plates and struck the tap to let cold wellwater run over the boy’s feet while with his cupped hand he gathered and poured or flung more cold water over his head and shoulders and chest, wanting first to see the steam stop coming off him, the Mommy over his shoulder invoking God until he sent her for towels and gauze if they had it, the Daddy moving quickly and well and his man’s mind empty of everything but purpose […]
Last month I finally got around to William H. Gass’s collection In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, which opens with the extraordinarily absorbing novella “The Pedersen Kid.” (Annie Proulx has said that “Pedersen” was a breakthrough for her understanding of what powers fiction could have.) The opening pages set a scene converse to that of Dewey and Wallace. On the first snowstormed page, Big Hans is carrying “something from the crib.”
It was the Pedersen kid. Hans had put the lid on the kitchen table like you would a ham and started the kettle. He wasn’t saying anything. I guess he figured one yell from the crib was enough noise. Ma was fumbling with the kid’s clothes which were stiff with ice. She made a sound like whew from every breath. The kettle filled and Hans said,
Get some snow and call your pa.
Get some snow. […]
Ma had rolled out some dough on the table where Hans had dropped the Pedersen kid like a filling. Most of the kid’s clothes were on the floor where they were going to make a puddle. Hans began rubbing snow on the kid’s face. Ma stopped trying to pull his things off and simply stood by the table with her hands held away from her as if they were wet, staring first at Big Hans and then at the kid. […]
Looks like a sick shoat.
Shut up and get your pa.
He don’t like to get waked.
I know that. Don’t I know that as good as you? Get him.
What good’ll he be?
We’re going to need his whiskey.
He can fix that need all right. He’s good for fixing the crack in his face. If it ain’t all gone.
The kettle was whistling. […]
Get the hell out.
Pa pulled at the covers. He was tasting his mouth.
The kid’s froze like a pump. Hans is rubbing him with snow. He’s got him in the kitchen. […]
Hans had laid steaming towels over the kid’s chest and stomach. He was rubbing snow on the kid’s legs and feet. Water from the snow and water from the towels had run off the kid to the table where the dough was, and the dough was turning pasty, sticking to the kid’s back and behind. […]
Listen to me, Jorge, I’ve had enough of your sassing. This kid’s froze bad. If I don’t get some whiskey down him he might die. You want the kid to die? Do you? Well, get your pa and get that whiskey.
Pa don’t care about the kid. […]
Hans poured some in a tumbler.
You going to put more towels on him?
Why not? That’s what he needs, something warm to his skin, don’t he?
Not where he’s froze good. Heat’s bad for frostbite. That’s why I only put towels on his chest and belly. He’s got to thaw slow. You ought to know that.
Colors on the towels had run.
Ma poked her toe in the kid’s clothes.
What are we going to do with these?