Story Board

by A. Jay Adler on August 23, 2010
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The best New Yorker story I’ve read in some time.

From “The Dredgeman’s Revelation,” by Karen Russel, the story of Louis Thanksgiving:

The dredge barge clanked downstream with its dipper handle swinging. For the first time in his short life, Louis had real friends, all sorts travelling alongside him into the glade—calm men, family men, bachelors, ex-preachers, hellions, white men, black men, the children of Indians and freed slaves. There was Adams, who had kicked a coral snake away from Louis’s naked big toe and thus saved his life with a casual grunt; ex-Army boys who followed the white-tailed deer into the briary midday darkness of the hardwood hammocks; drunks who took potshots at the queer golden cats that stalked the perimeter of their camp; gamblers who took all of Louis’s money with a pair of jacks and then gave (some of) it back at day’s end. Every man was Louis’s friend. When there was light in the sky, they waded forward. They surveyed the old section lines of the National Forest during the workweek, and on weekends they “rambled,” as LaVerl, the buck sergeant, said: shooting, fishing, sometimes even gator hunting along the nests that filled the unused railway bed. The cook told Louis to collect two dozen leathery eggs from these alligator nests, and made the whole crew a dinner of fishy-tasting omelettes.

When the light expired, they slept. White-tailed deer sprinted like loosed hallucinations among the tree islands. Sometimes Louis fell asleep watching them from the deck, and it worried him that he couldn’t pinpoint when his sleep began: deer rent the mist with their tiny hooves, a spotted contagion of dreams galloping inside Louis’s head. There were bad fires that blurred the world; in the summer months, you could see smoke rising almost daily, wherever lightning struck the peat beds.

Louis heard from the other surveyors that men all over the country were “hunting a week for one day’s work.” Sometimes when he thought about this he felt so lucky that he was almost sick to his stomach. Happiness could be felt as a pressure, too, Louis realized, more hard-edged and solid than longing, even. In Clarinda, he had yearned for better in a formless way, desire like a gray milk churn; in fact, he’d been so poor that he couldn’t settle on one concrete noun to wish for: A real father? A girl in town? A thousand acres? A single friend? In contrast, this new happiness had angles; it had a jewel-cut shadow, and he could lose it. Well, Louis determined that he was not going to lose it, and that he was never going back. The Depression was the best thing that had ever happened to him. He had a crisp stack of dollars, a uniform with his name stitched in raspberry thread on the pocket, and pork and grits in his belly.

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2 comments

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tom lucas August 24, 2010 at 3:01 pm

louis thanksgiving entertained me but i missed any important message or emotion the plot called out for. the early experiences of louis would not be expected to lead to his vanilla character and the profound psychological implications of his work in florida compared to his childhood were ignored. perhaps i just missed them while lost in a forest of flowery phrases. tom

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A. Jay Adler August 24, 2010 at 8:33 pm

Tom, obviously, the story’s dense sentences and almost hallucinatory images were not to your taste. Fair enough, though I think them right for the story. I’m wary, within bounds, of declaring what kind of wounded or other character must believably emerge from a particular childhood. And, then, this is not a realistic story. It is a parable. Louis Thanksgiving – ah, what a name – escapes an awful upbringing to welcome the possibilities and pleasures of life where others find misery. Such hope. And what comes flying out of the sky?

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