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New Yorker Fiction Review: "Story, With Bird" by Kevin Canty

Issue: Oct. 6, 2014

Story: "Story, With Bird"

Author: Kevin Canty

Rating: $$$$

Review: There is a special place in my heart for the fiction of Kevin Canty. His story "Mayfly," from the January 28, 2013 issue of the New Yorker, was the story that made me want to start writing weekly reviews of the NYer fiction. At the very least, that story was the tipping point where I said that occasionally reading the NYer fiction wasn't enough; I realized that the absolute best contemporary short fiction was being delivered to my door every week and, as an aspiring writer myself, I needed to not only be reading it every week but studying the stories, analyzing them. To what ultimate good would this endeavor ever come? How long would I last? When would I know when I'd done "enough" and no longer needed to read and write about the story each week? I don't know, and I still don't know. What I do know is, discovering authors like Kevin Canty is what makes this project worthwhile, and I have no intention of quitting any time soon.

Like "Mayfly," "Story, With Bird" uses a frank, word-spare and ever-so-slightly whistful tone to deal with the dissolution of a doomed, co-dependent relationship, though "Story, With Bird" focuses on one couple and stays at a much further remove than "Mayfly," using no dialogue at all. Canty uses a sort of Hemingway-esque sentimentality but with prose that's a bit more elegant, a bit more fleshed-out and contemporary, while adding a mystical element that flirts with a sort of Dybek-ish emotional mysticism and, like Dybek, manages to pack the story with a dense amount of emotion in a very small space.

Right from the opening line (really the opening words) Canty sets the story up as a look back over the wreckage of a tumultuous relationship that probably wouldn't have lasted in any case, as a couple try to quit drinking in order to stop their crazy up and down cycle of intimacy and madness, and live more even-keeled lives. He proceeds to explain how the couple's little "experiment" with going dry works until "she" goes to a wedding and falls off the wagon. When she comes home, she and the narrator start drinking again and resume their (ultimately unsustainable) life of late night drinking and drama. They take a road trip and break up during it, as she flies home from Denver and is gone before he arrives home.

As I said above, Canty manages to pack a lot of emotion and a lot of...for lack of a better word..."stuff" into a two-page story. The way he talks about the couple's drinking, as the force that simultaneously keeps the couple together and what makes their relationship unsustainable, captures perfectly the miasma that engulfs a relationship or an individual during a period of excessive drinking:

"The world divided itself into the drinking and the hangover, day and night, and we lived for the nights, the ones that ended in a blank place, half a memory to wake up to."

The couple drink to escape themselves and the sadness of their relationship, to give themselves a reason for joy and something to rail against the next day, a reason to not to feel their best.

Canty's familiarity with the mechanics of a failing, dysfunctional relationship are also nicely articulated in the following line, in which the narrator talks about his and his girlfriend's differing methods for ridding the house of a stray bird: "We were at the point where everything is a contest--the right way to do the dishes, drive a car, chase a bird out of a room." It's the kind of deft, almost effortlessly powerful line that can make you shudder, even if you've not ever been at that particularly sour phase of a relationship (and, let's face it, is there anyone who hasn't?). Canty has a real gift for this kind of thing and that's why I like his prose.

Also worthy of note is the narrator's rumination over his empty apartment after his girlfriend has moved out. He admits to always having loved the apartment and feeling, quite deeply, the hole that's left in the apartment (and his life) by his girlfriend's departure from it: "The floral smell of her various products and potions still hung in the air. Every molecule of the place was hers." For me, lines like that simply drip with sentiment. Canty's narrator is confessing to far more than the fact that the apartment still smells like his former partner, he's confessing to the deep sense of loss he feels inside him; the apartment was not "theirs" per se, but the place in which she had held him captivated with her "magic," as indicated by the use of the word "potions."

Finally, the narrator's epitaph to the relationship reads like a Zen koan: "I could get whatever kind of dog I wanted now. I could have a drink any time. But, as I thought this, I also understood that without her there to keep me company, without her there to argue with me about it, there wouldn't be any point to it pretty soon. And I was right about that." It's a sentiment whose surface meaning is fairly clear: the man's new-found "freedom" comes with a price: he'll be alone. However, it's the kind of prose that, upon closer inspection, can splinter into a thousand different meanings and perhaps never be fully understood until and unless you've lived the same scenario.


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