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New Yorker Fiction Review #235: "Arizona" by John Edgar Wideman

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Review of a short story from the Nov. 25, 2019 issue of The New Yorker...

This story is so multi-layered and complex that I did something I rarely do with short stories in The New Yorker: I read it twice. I'm a firm believer that if a story truly "works" on it's own, you should be able to feel it's full impact (whatever that is) on the first reading. Not that we shouldn't go back and re-read things, or even study them in-depth, but I feel like no writer should be so pretentious or disrespectful of their readers' time as to assume the reader will go back and re-read or study the work in order to find the "deeper" meaning or "get it." On the other hand, sometimes a story is packed with so much meaning and texture that it simply demands to be read again. Such is the case with "Arizona," by John Edgar Wideman.

This story is written in the form of a letter to Freddie Jackson (yes, Michael Jackson's brother) but is really "about" a father grappling with how to tell the story of his son's arrest and incarceration for murder -- at age 15 -- in 1986, through the lens of years of memories, a related trauma involving his best friend, and a song of Freddie Jackson's that meant a lot to him over the years: "You Are My Lady."

It's always risky to attempt these non-linear, "memory" type of stories that do not have a protagonist, a major conflict, or a conventional beginning, middle, and end. But in John Edgar Wideman's hands it comes off well. Wideman weaves a sort of web of memories, pulling in -- among other things -- the macabre story of his best friend who murdered his wife (the friend's wife, not Wideman's) and fled to France for 17 years before being caught and brought to justice, paralleling that with his son's own murder accusation, trial, and incarceration. It seems that, for a man with an Ivy League education and a seemingly successful, upper-middle-class life, the author's life has been singularly marred by acts of violence perpetrated by loved ones. As a result, he seems caught in a sort of emotional limbo, not being able to get any closure or help his son, and not sure what to feel about his best friend's heinous crime. Though he is unable to understand the motives behind his son's or his best friend's actions, he is haunted by the anguish they must have felt and haunted by his own anguish.

What's noticeably absent in the story is any judgement or blame on the perpetrators for their actions, or even sympathy for the victims. Not because the author doesn't have any, but -- far  more likely -- because he's moved past those emotions (he's had time, after all; the murders happened 30-40 years prior) and is now left only with the traces that continue to flow through him and affect him every day.

Above all, "Arizona" deeply concerned with how we live with grief, how we go on in the face of tragedies that may seem too large and mysterious to possibly understand, and how we tell the stories of our loved ones whom we've lost but who continue to "live" inside us whether they are dead, or locked-up, or vanished from our lives for other reasons. Thankfully, most of us do not have to experience this, but many of us have some situation in our lives that's somewhat similar we can compare this too. And all of us are trying to make meaning out of our lives as our lives move forward, ceaselessly, whether we are ready or not and whether we succeed in finding that meaning or not.