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Thursday, December 2, 2010

In Progress: 'Best American Short Stories'

Charles Baxter contributes a tangled tale of "The Cousins" to Best American Short Stories 2010. It opens with narrator Bunny relating a boozy lunch he has with his much younger cousin, Brantford. Although the years separate them, Bunny feels they are connected, that they share a lot.

With the name of the famous victim in Donna Tartt's classic The Secret History, and cousin Brantford telling him that he feels like he killed someone but isn't sure, waiting for the other shoe to drop can derail the reading process.

And Baxter takes the narrative off course right away. While Brantford is asking Bunny for sympathy about this odd feeling, Bunny notes that "I haven't always behaved well when people open their hearts to me." Oooooh, more Tartt territory. Especially when Bunny dumps telling about lunch to talk about a woman he was seeing, Giulietta, whose eyes she keeps covered with dark glasses. En route to a super irony ultra New York 1970s party, Bunny asks her to please be clever. An isolated poet at the party calls Bunny scum when he puts his foot in his mouth trying to be clever and he runs away. Nothing more about Giulietta that night. The evening ends with Bunny enthralled about a pissy encounter with a drunk in a subway station he may or may not have had, much like Brantford's feeling about killing someone.

After a visit with Brantford's mother, in which she mentions a woman important to him that he never mentioned to Bunny, the years go by and Bunny meets that woman. After he's left New York, become a lawyer, found Giulietta, married her and had two children, all offstage. That woman, Camille, tells Bunny he can send her big checks every month to "exercise his pity". But this is the man who told the reader he has a history of not doing good by those who open their hearts to him. Then again, it's quite unlikely that Camille opened her heart to him.

In the cab ride home, Bunny listens to the Ethiopian driver tell him about the nine hearts each Somali has, hidden one inside the other. Then the story ends with Bunny on the outside of his home looking in.

"The Cousins" has as many layers as Somalis have hearts. But is there a real heart inside the other eight? Did Brantford kill someone? Did Bunny sock a drunk? Is he going to send money to Camille and why should he? Brantford spent his life taking care of strays. Bunny and Brantford have loosely parallel lives. Is Camille now Bunny's stray? What about home? Is it still his safe haven?

Baxter has written one of those stories that raises question after question. And it's just possible that none of them need to be answered. That the point is looking back down the road and realizing what has happened, rather than trying to make sense of it as it happens.

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