July 07, 2005

The Hole

Yesterday I bought a copy of The Stories of Stephen Dixon. Many of these stories are very harsh and hard to take. They often show human nature stripped to some of its basest drives--fear, anger, violence, pettiness. (And lust, but that's not so base--those stories are funny.) In some ways his concerns resemble George Saunders', though Dixon's distortions of language are much different from Saunders', and his view of humanity is accordingly even darker and much less funny.

One of the stories I read last night was "The Hole." Summarizing Dixon's plots is more or less criminal, but I'm going to do it anyway.

First sentence: "The City Planetarium blew up." The narrator, an off-duty policeman, is outside when it happens. A group of children is trapped in the basement cafeteria, with their teacher and the cafeteria workers. As the police and fire departments dig to a hole to let them escape, the teacher refuses to let anyone go until the hole is wide enough to let him out. "'Listen yourself,' he said. 'If I know anything about human nature it's that you men will dig a lot harder for me while the kids are down here than if they've all been released.'"

The people gathered around the hole threaten to lynch the teacher. When all the kids are out, and the hole is wide enough for him to emerge, he refuses to come out for fear for his safety. The narrator is told to go down into the hole with the teacher's son in order to coax him back up. They cannot find him. The other policemen go down to search the hole. When they come up they announce that the teacher has escaped. The crowd turns against the narrator, and when they discover that the boy with him is the teacher's son, they disarm the narrator and the other policemen, beat the son to death, and hang him upside down from a tree.

Last paragraph:

I cut the rope holding the son: he came down on his head. THe policemen put him in a canvas sack and that sack into the trunk of the squad car. No charges were brought against anyone for the son's death. The following day the newspapers said the sone had died from a fall inside the stairway hole while looking for his father, who was still being sought by the police. The police, the articles said, were still trying to determine the causes and persons responsible for the planetarium bombing and other related explosions. So far they've had no success.

I couldn't help but think of this story again when I heard today's news. But, as I said, Dixon's stories depict human nature stripped to its pettiness. The British reaction has been nothing like the mob in Dixon's story (via Ogged). But it was also hard to avoid thinking of a time when we responded to terrorist attacks by--eventually--lashing out at a country that, while ruled by a bad man, was not the real culprit.

(I'm sorry, Kevin, I think you're right but Digby is too. And I've seen something that makes me so angry I'm not going to be able to hold off on the political point-scoring.)

Posted by Matt Weiner at July 7, 2005 02:39 PM