don’t eat the brown snow

[CN: alcohol abuse, domestic violence]

“The Pedersen Kid” is the curtain opener of IN THE HEART OF THE HEART OF THE COUNTRY, Gass’s early collection of stories. ill be doing an entry on each one in the book. Who knows what kind of editorial or publication issues there might be, but im surprised that i dont find “TPK” in more textbook anthologies. Every part of its exquisite composition and brooding darkness screams Murican Classic! The next edition of Norton’s Short Fiction should replace HEART OF DARKNESS with it. Seriously.

The narrator is an adolescent boy. His sentences are simple, every word is a 1-cent word. The North Dakota farmer dialect comes not through grammatical mannerism but in choice words, and a lack of adverbs: the glass “rolled slow by ma’s feet.” There’s something of a plot though nothing is resolved, the mysteries only intensify in ambiguity, the single quest we follow fails, the dialog is perfunctory and ridden in useless conflict and competition. There may or may not be an intruder out there in the snow, but Pa’s alcoholism threatens to explode in violence at any moment. There is a menace from within and without, no warmth.

Reading Gass’s long essay on Gertrude Stein helped illuminate the kind of experimentation he’s doing here. Stein’s modernism took inspiration from cubist painting, attempting to refresh language by thinking spatially rather than linearly, trying to recombine familiar words into new composites:

Picasso’s hermetic The Clarinet Player, for instance, painted during the same period Tender Buttons was being composed, offers no comment, visual or otherwise, on clarinet playing, players, or the skill of playing. After the motif has been analyzed into its plastic elements, these are modified and recombined according to entirely abstract schemes in which colors and forms predominate and respond solely to one another.

Much later on Gass talks about making a game out of breaking up and recombining words and phrases in a way that pursues a musicality. He’s putting the theory into practice in this novella, a late modernist exercise. Nouns and verbs keep looping back in like a fugue, phrases show up that strike the reader as something familiar way back toward the beginning, like the sun “burning on the snow.” There are large gaps between sentences, perhaps rests that you “read/play.” And the final moments are an astounding climax of this kind of language, but this passage is near the beginning:

The wind had dropped. The sun lay burning on the snow. I got cold just the same. I didn’t want to go in but I could feel the cold crawling over me like it must have crawled over him [the Pedersen kid] while he was coming. It had slipped over him like a sheet, icy at first, especially around the feet, and he’d likely wiggled his toes in his boots and wanted to wrap his legs around each other like you do when you first come to bed. But then things would begin to warm up some, the sheet feeling warmer all the time until it felt real cozy and you went to sleep. Only when the kid went to sleep by our rib it wasn’t like going to sleep in bed because the sheet never really got warm and he never really got warm either. Now he was just as cold in our kitchen with the kettle whistling and ma getting ready to bake as I was out by the crib jigging my feet in our snow.      I had to go in.      I looked but I couldn’t see anyone trying to come down where the road was. All I could see was a set of half-filled prints jiggling crazily away into the snow until they sank under a drift. There wasn’t anything around. There wasn’t anything: a tree or a stick or a rock whipped bare or a bush hugged by snow sticking up to mark the place where those prints came up out of the drift like somebody had come up from underground.

Pa’s sleep is disturbed and his outburst is a more obvious example of this repetition:

I shittin well understand. You know I don’t want to see Pedersen. That cock. Why should I? That fairy farmer. What did he come for, hey? God dammit, get. And don’t come back. Find out some shittin something. You’re a fool. Both you and Hans. Pedersen. That cock. That fairy farmer. Don’t come back. Out. Shit. Out out.

Pa’s alcoholism has poisoned the entire family. Hans, a hired help, and the narrator, Jorge, are embittered and hateful and devoid of empathy or compassion. Ma has been physically assaulted in the past and still bears a scar on her face. Later they find a frozen horse by the neighbor farm, does it belong to the Pederens or the alleged intruder that the Pedersen kid said he was escaping? Hans and Pa bicker over this.

It went on like singing. I got up carefully, taking the safety off. Later in winter maybe somebody would stumble on his shoes sticking out of the snow. Shooting Hans seemed like something I’d done already. I knew where he kept his gun — under those magazines in his drawer — and though I’d really never thought of it before, the whole thing moved before me now so naturally it must have happened that way. Of course I shot them all — Pa in his bed, ma in her kitchen, Hans when he came in from his rounds. They wouldn’t look much different dead than alive only they wouldn’t be so loud.

The contrapuntal narration is a scramble of consciousness. The blizzard snow is blinding except for where it’s stained by coal dust or browned by spilled whiskey. Jorge only has a handful of words to form anything that he sees or hears. The bitter cold muddles his brain — the entire reading experience is oppressive and dark. It might also suggest a traumatized and stunted youth, nowhere to go or grow because of a tyrant father with his bottle. i think about the optimistic 50s when this story was written, with its nuclear family values and chauvinism, and along comes “The Pedersen Kid” in which nothing is made clear, all characters are impotent, community is nonexistent save a source of resentment and bigotry, and the family is rotting from the inside.

im doing a long excerpt from the middle of the story (there’s some formalist rigor with it being in three parts with three chapters apiece). i hope this showcases the looping words, the morose tone, the precise details, the extremely good quality of the prose.

“The Pedersen Kid” by William H. Gass

Barberry had got in the grove and lay about the bottom of the trees and hid in snow. The mossycups went high, their branches put straight out, the trunk bark black and wrinkled. There were spots where I could see the frosted curls o dead grass frozen to the ground and high hard-driven piles of snow the barberry stuck its black barbs from. The wind had thrown some branches in the drifts. The sun made shadows of more branches on their sides and bent them over ridges. The ground rose up behind the grove. The snow rose. Pa and hans had their shotguns. We followed along the drifts kept down low. I could hear us breathing and the snow, earth, and our boots squeaking. We went slow and all of us was cold.

Above the snow, through the branches, I could see the peak of Pedersen’s barn. We were making for the barn. Once in a while Pa would stop and watch fro smoke but there was nothing in the sky. Big Hans bumped into a bush and got a barb through his woolen glove. Pa mentioned Hans to hush I could feel my gun through my glove — heavy and cold. Where we kept the ground was driven nearly bare. Mostly so to look up. When I did, for smoke, the faint breeze caught my cheek and drew the skin across the bone. I didn’t think of much except how to follow Han’s heels and how, even underneath my cap, my ears burned, and how my lips hurt and how just moving made me ache. Pa followed where a crazy wind had got in among the oaks and blown the snow bare form the ground in flat patches against their trunks. Sometimes we had to break through a small drift or we’d have gone in circles. The roof of Pedersen’s house grew above the banks as we went until finally we passed across one corner of it and I saw the chimney very black in the sun stick up from the steep bright pitch like a dead cigar rough-ashed with snow.

I thought: the fire’s dead, they must be froze.

Pa stopped and nodded at the chimney.

You see, Hans said unhappily.

Just then I saw a cloud of snow float from the crest of a drift and felt my eyes smart. Pa looked quick at teh sky but it was clear. Hans stomped his feet, hung his head, swore in a whisper.

Well, Pa said, it looks like we made this trip for nothing. Nobody’s to home.

The Pedersens are all dead, Hans said, still looking down.

Shut up. I saw Pa’s lips were chapped…a dry hole now. A muscle jumped along his jaw.      Shut up, he said.

A faint ribbon of snow suddenly shot from the top of the chimney and disappeared. I stood as still as I could in the tubes of my clothes, the snow shifting strangely in my eyes, alone, frightened by the space that was bowling up inside me, a white blank glittering waste like the waste outside, coldly burning, roughed with waves, and I wanted to curl up, face to my thighs, but i knew my tears would freeze my lashes together. My stomach began to growl.

What’s the matter with you, Jorge? Pa said.

Nothing. I giggled. I’m cold, Pa, I guess, I said. I belched.

Jesus, said Hans loudly.

Shut up.

I poked at the snow with the toe of my boot. I wanted to sit down and if there’d been anything to sit on I would have. All I wanted was to go home or sit down. Hans had stopped stomping and was staring back through the trees toward the way we’d come.

Anybody in that house, Pa said, would have a fire.

He sniffed and rubbed his sleeve across his nose.

Anybody — see? He began raising his voice. Anybody who was in that house now would have a fire. The Pedersens is all most likely out hunting that fool kid. They probably tore ass off without minding the furnace. Now it’s out. His voice got braver. Anybody who might have come along while they was gone, and gone in, would have started a fire someplace first thing, and we’d see smoke. It’s too damn cold not to.

Pa took the shotgun he’d carried broken over his left arm and turned the barrel over, slow and deliberate. Two shells feel out and he stuffed them in his coat pocket.

That means there ain’t anybody home. There ain’t no smoke, he said with emphasis, and that means there ain’t nobody.

Big Hans sighed. Okay, he muttered from a way off. Let’s go home.

I wanted to sit down. Here was the sofa, here the bed — mine — white and billowy. And the stairs, cold and snapping. And I had the dry cold toothaching mouth I always had at home, and the cold storm in my belly, and my pinched eyes. There was the print of the kid’s rear in the dough. I wanted to sit down. I wanted to go back where we’d tied up Horse Simon and sit numb in the sleigh.

Yes yes yes, let’s, I said.

Pa smiled — oh the bastard — the bastard — and he didn’t know half what I knew now, numb in the heart the way I felt, and with my burned-off ears.

We could at least leave a note saying Big Hans saved their kid. Seems to me like the only neighborly thing to do. And after all the way we came. Don’t it you?

What the hell do you know about being neighborly? Hans shouted.

With a jerk he dumped his shotgun shells into the snow and kicked at them until one skidded into a drift and only the brass showed. The other sank in the snow before it broke. Black powder spilled out under his feet.

Pa laughed.

Come on, Pa, I’m cold, I said. Look, I ain’t brave. I ain’t. I don’t care. All I am is cold.

Quit whimpering, we’re all cold. Big Hans here is awful cold.

Sure, ain’t you?

Hans was grinding the black grains under.

Yeah, Pa said, grinning. Some.      I’m some. He turned around. Think you can find your way back Jorge?

I got going and he laughed again, loud and ugly, damn his soul. I hated him. Jesus how I did. But no more like a father. Like the burning space.

I never did like that bastard Pedersen anyway, he said as we started. Pedersen’s one of them that’s always asking for trouble.On his knees for it all the time. Let him find out about his kid himself. He knows where we live. It ain’t neighborly but I never said I wanted him a neighbor.

Yeah, Hans said. Let the old bastard find out himself.


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