“Burying Agnes” by Tom Noyes (2003; reviewed 2016)

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Blog Note:

This is the first of potentially multiple reviews of Tom Noyes’ debut short story collection Behold Faith and Other Stories (Dufour 2003).  Mr. Noyes, at the time of this book’s publication, was teaching creative writing at my alma mater Indiana State University.  Also at that time, I was teaching at a small, rural 7-12 public school about 30 miles away. Mr. Noyes was gracious enough to visit my creative writing club members and give a brief talk about the craft.

This first review is over a story I’ve very recently read.  Seriously, it was about thirty minutes ago*.  I’m not a professional reviewer, so I’m not sure if I’m breaking protocol by not “sleeping on it”** or “thinking about it”*** before I just write about it.  Luckily, I can blame my amateur review on my lack of review training and knowledge of such rules (stated or unstated).

*I started the story (and this blog) yesterday and was able to finish this morning.

**I actually did…now.

***Did that too.

End of Blog Note:  Actual blog below little line below.

“Burying Agnes” is perhaps an appropriate title for what transpires.  Wait…am I allowed spoilers here?  Um…let’s see.  Well, Agnes is not a human, and the title suggests she’s getting buried, so I think I’m okay.  Agnes is the main character Cal’s elderly dog.  Her death is imminent, and Cal’s first appearance in the story shows him preparing for her wintertime death by deciding to dig a hole in the back yard prior to the ground freezing.  It’s Labor Day weekend, and Cal is half a decade away from retiring.  His impending retirement, one must conclude, is stated only for us to know his approximate age and hint that he’s one of those fixed-in-his-ways kind of guys.

Because Cal and his wife Jan apparently have no children of their own, they have perhaps a closer relationship with the aging dog.  Jan’s not pleased with Cal’s decision to dig the hole for obvious reasons.  This is her baby too, and she’s nowhere nearly as prepared for the rapidly approaching death of the dog as much as Cal is.  This doesn’t make Cal cold; it makes him sensible.  If the vet is right that Agnes won’t make it to Christmas, then he’s doing her a service by having the hole prepared for her final resting spot.  It’s senseless to put his own health in jeopardy by digging in much colder conditions into an icy landscape.

The heart of the story soon changes to an impromptu Labor Day family gathering among Cal’s neighbors–who have both grown children and half-a-dozen young blond grandchildren.  The party, now fourteen in number including Cal and Jan but not counting any pets whatsoever, is a traditional American cookout-and-pool scene.  There is a sense that Cal and his neighbor Ernie have become something of friends but only by geographic limitations.  Perhaps this is meant to speak to a common acquaintanceship one has in American suburbia.  We get older and lazier and befriend the closest people out of convenience.  Cal’s role throughout the day is rather minimal.  He’s not meeting Ernie’s kin for the first time, but he’s also not the type of man to demand educational and professional updates from each member of the family.  Rather, he drinks beer and mildly offers to help once the grilled food is prepared for consumption.

Cal and his wife Jan are not fighting–at least, there’s no true evidence other than the opening exchange about the hole-digging–but their relationship is not in the ballpark of lovey-dovey either.  They’re post-50.  They don’t get that way with one another.  There seems to be a heavy emphasis on Cal using humor to keep things upbeat between them.  Jan, about three-quarters into the story, elects to take advantage of the one hour of pool time allotted to the adults.  This is mildly surprising in that prior to her submersion into the water, one would suspect she’d be the kind of woman who would offer to clean up after the meal and rest under a ceiling fan.  They’re little more than roommates that stay together for the sake of the dog or the insurance or both, but that’s not atypical of American marriages with- or without children at that stage of life.

The action of the story is intentionally laid-back, presumably to mirror Cal’s lifestyle.  He takes things as they come, and there appears to be no suggestion that he’s had an erratic reaction to anything in his life.

The final scene involves Cal stoically observing the children’s whiffle ball game while keeping things lively through his alcohol-induced wit, including his amusing verbal play-by-play of the children–all of whom he calls Blondie.  His noted apathy toward the children secure an interpretation that children were never part of his life-plan and are at best a nuisance.

Then again, he’s fairly jovial in every human interaction within the story.  Yet, it’s impossible to know if this jokey disposition would be present throughout his day-to-day life if he had ever been a full-time dad.  He’s more of a “funny uncle” whose responsibilities are only vaguely present when he’s within a certain radius of the children.  This haphazard jurisdiction, in the end, makes him ultimately guilty of the unsettling climax–a crime he does not directly commit.  When one of the young boys end up at the bottom of the pet grave due to his understandable ignorance of the hole, Cal is obviously sorry but appears more so for the fact that the shovel was down there as well.  What truly redeems his merit and absentmindedness is his reaction to the event.   He hurries to the boy but relinquishes immediately once the boy’s father reaches him.  He’s mute throughout the chaos and silently agrees to stay home when his wife suggests he not accompany the large party to the hospital.   In short, he’s humbled by the event, knowing perhaps that electing not to procreate was a solid choice.  Some men, Noyes might be suggesting here, are better suited to be just funny neighbors or uncles.

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