Michael Cunningham’s “White Angel.” ive never read Cunningham before; my impression was that he was middlebrow American realist lit par excellence, but that’s definitely not fair of me. i read this story in the Best American collection from 1989 which says it first appeared in the New Yorker, and apparently it got expanded into his first novel A HOME AT THE END OF THE WORLD. ive had FLESH AND BLOOD on the shelf for like a decade now, but ill probably get to THE HOURS first.
The Morrow family lives in Cleveland in the 60s. “our radios sang out love all day long. This of course is history. It was before the city of Cleveland went broke, before its river caught fire.” The narrator is Robert, or Bobby Morrow, who is nine and looks up to his teenaged brother Carlton, who shows him pot, whiskey, and acid. Their tract of housing is right on a cemetery, and the boys use it as a smoke spot.
Bobby narrates one acid session “several months before his [Carlton’s] death.” They look at the snow, the ornate tombs and mausoleums. at home they watch TV and set the table while still tripping. Carlton opens a window as a flurry blows outside, and the experience while high constitutes a miracle for Bobby. We learn that Bobby is very distant from both his parents, but has more antipathy against his mom; he wishes to leave Cleveland to the new nation in Woodstock.
A couple more episodes: Bobby runs in on Carlton and a girlfriend in the cemetery, some conflict with the parents, and a spring party which is crashed by Carlton and his friends, mingling with the society of the parents. Psychedelic rock and Bob Dylan. Bobby is taken to bed once it gets too late, Carlton fails to stick up for him. When the crowd is lured outside when one of the young partiers claims to see a UFO, Carlton heads out to the cemetery, comes rushing back and crashes into the backyard glass door and bleeds to death.
so one motif in the story is Miracles, which here means any extraordinary event that you couldn’t have predicted (like a river catching fire). Here are Bobby and Carlton “flying.”
For a moment we strain up and out, the black night wind blowing in our faces — we raise ourselves up off the cocoa-colored deep-pile wool-and-polyester carpet by a sliver of an inch. I swear it to this day. Sweet glory. The secret of flight is this: You have to do it immediately, before your body realizes it is defying the laws.
We both know we have taken momentary leave of the earth. It does not strike either of us as remarkable, any more than does the fact that airplanes sometimes fall from the sky, or that we have always lived in Ohio and will soon leave for a new nation. We settle back down. Carlton touches my shoulder.
“You wait, Frisco,” he says. “Miracles are happening, Goddam miracles.” (94)
Airplanes sometimes fall from the sky: one onto a house across town, and another one over the Pacific, where his mom’s first husband died. Cunningham is spare with the family background. Also that is the most detail we get about how their house is built.
a second motif is traces after death. Carlton doesnt become a ghost, but a lot of space is given to descriptions of the monuments in the cemetery, the titular white angel “raising her arms across the river,” the cherubs, the snow on engraved letters. also important is their dad’s workshop in the basement. he’s building a grandfather clock: “He wants to have something to leave us, something for us to pass along. We can hear him in the basement, sawing and pounding. I know what is laid out on his sawhorses — a long, raw wooden box, onto which he glues fancy moldings.” Bobby’s acid hit has given him X-ray vision.
im trying to get a better understanding of the short story (in general). right now i write stories and poems as a way to test out ideas for longer works, not as distinct forms with their own pluses and minuses. i also think short stories are harder to read and write than novels, which sounds crazy, but novels are leisurely; a lot of their syntax is decided by “what happens” in it. In a short story every detail counts, every word can be controlled. And Cunningham orchestrates a lot of details playing on these motifs.
Details like the dining room wallpaper:
a golden farm, backed by mountains. Cows graze, autumn trees cast golden shade. This scene repeats itself three times, on three walls. (93)
Pastoral, autumn (a season this story misses), repetition. It’s the kitschy image of security and comfort that’s perfectly at home in a housing tract in Ohio. i take it as the story’s theme, the binding agent of these motifs. There’s generational distance and strife in the Morrow household: the greatest generation and the boomers who are now expanding their minds and seeing what’s possible before they grow up and vote for Reagan. But we should go beyond those cliches of suburban revolt and dismayed conservative parents. Cunningham shows us what they have in common, how they both try to find security, how they both need to cope with random misfortune. Bobby and Carlton place it on the future, where freedom will ring, the Woodstock nation. But the Future is just as hollow of a promise as the Family. You can bind your family together under the name Morrow, you can build a grandfather clock or a tomb to be remembered by, but when a miracle comes along it won’t be any less traumatic.
Now a good literary short also needs some clear-cut ambiguities: Why does Carlton hop the fence and go into the cemetery during the raging house party, and what was he doing there? And then why did he come running back to the house at full tilt? (maybe he was spooked by something, maybe Bobby is right in thinking “he just couldn’t wait to return to the music and the people, the noisy disorder of continuing life.” the draw of disorderly life, or the security of his parents’ house, or maybe just an impulse, like his impulse to pull out the glass shard in his neck, when leaving it in until the paramedics show up might have saved him (this would get rather complex if we were to bring in theories of active nihilism). And what does his girlfriend say to him as he dies on the floor (who Bobby can’t even name for the pain it has caused her)?
Suddenly every detail, like the black blowing wind of night at the window, seems to resonate with the particular way Cunningham investigates this part of ‘Merican life in this period — shit, even aliens are mentioned; it was the time of Mothman and all that too.
This concludes my Build-A-New-Yorker-Story workshop. Thanks.