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New Yorker Fiction Review: "The Crabapple Tree" by Robert Coover

Issue: Jan. 12, 2015

Story: "The Crabapple Tree"

Author: Robert Coover

Rating: $$

Review: Even when he's not writing outright re-boots of fairy tales, Robert Coover's stories always have a basic undercarriage of fairy tale magic and/or magical realism which makes them fun to read. And they're short, which helps in that regard as well. Opening up the pages of the NYer to a Robert Coover sotry is kind of like opening up your stocking on Christmas morning....Hey, it's a candy bar! A Starbucks gift card! A shot-glass from the Atlanta airport! A pack of pens! Neato! i.e. you never know what you're going to get, but it'll be something small and good.

"The Crabapple Tree" is (wonder of all wonders) a story within a story told by a woman who lives in a small town about a long-since passed away friend of hers who died in childbirth. Her story is the kind of thing that I'm sure used to be much more the fabric of rural small town life than it is now; a dark, morbid tale involving witchcraft and started by gossiping neighbors to explain the strange behavior of people they don't understand. This is the kind of thing people used to get killed over in the 1600s in New England (and I'm sure elsewhere). The town hussy gets accused of "witch-craft" because she's seducing all the men in the village; next thing you know, she's being burned alive. Though this story takes place in mid- to late- 20th century, you can almost trace the filaments of that kind of provincial, puritanical distrust of anything out of the ordinary, back to the violent days of the Salem Witch Trials.

As human beings, we've always had a fairly violent relationship -- at the very least a mistrust -- of the unknown, hence the tribalism, violence, wars, oppression, and exploitation (just to name a few) that have permanently pock-marked all of human history and likely will forever. Hence, also, less overtly negative aspects of human culture like story and spirituality and -- to a lesser extent -- spirituality's often two-faced child: organized religion.

Religion makes an appearance in this review just as it makes an interesting and somewhat oblique appearance in the story, as Coover causes the narrator to tip her hand a bit and reveal some of the twisted provincialism which may have resulted in the existence of the very tale she's telling. The narrator tells the story of her affair with the police chief and that, when they were kids they had fooled around as well, but it would never have worked out as a marriage because "...he was a Catholic and I was a Lutheran." She goes on to say that, even as life-worn, mature adults, it's still not going to work out, but they can overlook their religious differences and offer each other romantic company for as long as it's convenient. Is it difficult to imagine tall-tales springing up in a town in which, in the 20th century, two people of the same Christian faith can't have a formal relationship for religious reasons? No. It's not hard at all.

I like how Coover provides the keys to understanding his own stories, like he did in the story "The Colonel's Daughter" from the Sept. 2, 2013 issue, albeit much more self-consciously. If I hadn't taken the time to think and write about "The Crabapple Tree" I might have missed the religious undertones altogether, as Coover doesn't make much of them (hence why they're undertones, I suppose). Rather, he lets the story unfold and stays true to the character, letting the careful reader make his own deductions.

Robert Coover
I'm not sure what to make of some of the more macabre parts of this story, such as a child playing with the bones of her dead stepbrother, or the wicked (read: openly promiscuous) step mother turning those bones into a stew and feeding it to the boy's father. It could be that Coover just uses these as embellishments to illustrate the absolute ridiculousness to which people's imaginations will rise when they don't like and don't understand something. The tale was more than likely concocted by some (rightly or wrongly) jealous wives clucking about the strange woman who was attracting the attention of their husbands, in order to scare people away from her. But whatever the this world, the story exists, and Coover attempts to place it in the context of the meta-world he's created; an interesting device that does, indeed, add a layer of complexity to what would otherwise be preposterous.

In another interesting meta-moment, the narrator relates the story of how the local fire marshal tried to tell the story of the bone stew to the man to whom it was supposedly served. The man punched the fire marshal in the face and broke his nose. I like this moment because here Coover outlines the exact borders of the ludicrous world of the tall tale. When the story comes to the surface, to one of the actual players within the story, it is exposed as just that: a bullshit story and cheap gossip. Again, Coover provides a neat little "trap-door" within the story that leads us back to reality.

On the surface, just a story of a woman relating a tall-tale that's been swirling around her town for a few decades. But beneath the surface, a pretty ingenious piece of story-telling.