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New Yorker Fiction Review: "Eykelboom" by Brad Watson

Issue: Nov. 24, 2014

Story: "Eykelboom"

Author: Brad Watson

Rating: $$

Review: Brad Watson's a new one on me. From the looks of it he's an established, well-published (if not exactly well-known), Upper-Middle Tier player in the literary ranks; two books of short stories, a novel, a handful of awards and nominations, and a professorship at the University of Wyoming. Not exactly a piker, but no George Saunders either (he's the only literary heavy-weight I could think of right now). He's got the kind of solid, productive, creative writing success story that literary hopes and dreams are built on in this country ("See...Brad Watson did it, you can too!" kind of thing). I know because I've been there...the dreamer, not the example.

Anyway, "Eykelboom" is a dark, eerie look into the cruel and unforgiving world of near-adolescent boyhood, focusing on a small piece of a sub-urban sprawl neighborhood outside a small 60s era southern city, probably in Georgia, Alabama, or Mississippi. A group of childhood friends in the neighborhood, collectively known as "the boys," has their group dynamic altered and their humanity tested when an odd boy called Emile Eykelboom moves into the neighborhood.

Emile's father is overly macho and the boys have a strong, well-founded suspicion that he beats Emile regularly and for the merest of slights. Instead of feeling sorry for Emile, the boys continue to treat him as an outcast because of this and because of his oddness, never letting him inside their sacred tree-house, for one, and never coming to his defense until it's too late. When strange things start to happen around the neighborhood, the boys blame Emile and this forces the boy even further to the fringes of their crew. Finally, an incident involving the crotchety old landowner who owns the adjacent woods forces Emile to run away, never to be seen or heard from again.

Watson does two things really well in this story. First, he really constructs the harsh, cruel world of adolescent boys with deftness and accuracy, suggesting that he might have been half Eykelboom and half one of the boys in his own youth, or at least a good enough observer to understand the two worlds. Eykelboom is intrinsically odd and his family is also from some indeterminate northern, Yankee state, "Indianaland" to the boys. Thus, he has two strikes against him; one too many for the boys to accept him. If the boys did accept him, this would have been a wholly different and perhaps inaccurate seeming story. Young boys can be violent, pack-oriented, territorial, and in many ways reflective of what is going on in their own homes, above their heads, in the Adult Worlds. Watson alludes to this when he paints the boys' fathers mostly as ineffectual, distant, and homogenous, archetypal defeated southerners, so unlike Eykelboom's terrifying father. Thus, the boys stick together, simultaneously because of and to spite their similar and understandable backgrounds, forming a cadre that Eykelboom, as he was, never had a hope of entering. A familiar experience to anyone who's ever been the "new kid."

The second thing Watson does really well in this story is to set an overtone of violence and mystery, even death. On the surface, the fact that Eykelboom's father beckons him inside for (what we assume are) his periodic beatings, in full view of the neighborhood--the calling, not the beatings themselves--sets and viscerally uncomfortable and twisted mood; we just know there's some deep dysfunction that will manifest itself badly here. But Watson also uses nice visual clues to do this job as well. The woods where the boys play is intercut by a stream that leads to a series of shallow ponds over-run with deadly poisonous water moccasins. Chandler, the man who owns the woods, periodically fires-off his shotgun at the boys when he knows they are in the woods, one time actually hitting one of the boys with a piece of shot. The area where the boys play closer to their development, is called the "ditch," a scrubby, runoff creek with sandy, collapsing banks where the boys make caves that periodically collapse without warning. It's not exactly an ugly world, but it is a world composed of a thin veneer of normalcy over-top one with rough and jagged edges, as evidenced by Watson's description of the boys' mothers:

"...sometimes angry, sometimes sad, obsessed with the outrageous burden of housework and cooking, even if they had paying jobs as well. Women who rushed out of their back doors to smoke, pacing, on the patio or as far from the house as possible, who could not be spoken to until it was bearable for them to be in their lives again, which could take minutes, hours, or days."

I really, really liked inhabiting this world for a half an hour, even if the ending to the story left something to be desired. Watson made a really killer build-up, only to leave me feeling a little disappointed and empty-handed; however, the argument could be made that the story, left that way, is more true to life. And it did enjoy the few paragraphs long epilogue at the end of the story, showing that the boys all grew up to be spectacularly unspectacular, just like their forbears, and two of the (now grown) boys' ultimate conjecture about what happened to Eykelboom. If a story is as good as it's last few paragraph send-off, then this was a good one.

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