March 12, 2016: “Floating Bridge” by Alice Munro

Some time around nine this morning, the Skylark pulled onto my street in Springfield and dropped me off at curb in front of my house. I had been gone for nearly eight days on my Spring Break journey, and while I could have easily come home tomorrow instead—it would not have been hard to fake a breakdown of some sorts along the way, spend one more night with the guys, get in a little more trouble, have another story to tell. Enough was enough. I missed my family, the guys missed their girlfriends, the Skylark coughed and wheezed all the way down National Avenue, and we didn’t have any more money for anything. I hugged each and every one of the guys—Jimmy D, Jimmy Z, Cornhole, Vinnie, Bizquick, and Three-balls, told them we could do it again next year, though half those guys are graduating, heading off into the world, and I doubt I’ll see some of them ever again outside of Facebook or the police blotter. Good thing there’s this blog, as good a souvenir as any T-shirt, keychain, or beer bottle cozy with the words Daytona Beach branded across it.

With Spring Break! Week over at Story366, it’s time to get back to normal posts, and what better way to Christen this new start than with one of the world’s most renowned story writers, Alice Munro, the Canadian treasure who won the Nobel Prize in Literature a couple of years ago. In fact, if I recall correctly, there was a debate in the Nobel circles about whether or not someone who was primarily a short story writer—Munro has ten collections to one novel—should even be eligible for that type of honor, stories somehow a lesser art form, it was implied. After years and years of being nominated by her home country, she won, dispelling any notion that short stories aren’t worthy, at least according to that selection committee.

You would think, then, that Alice Munro is one of my heroes, the short story writer who won the craft’s ultimate prize, a worldwide force of creativity who does what I do better than anyone on Earth, maybe ever. You would think that. That’s not necessarily the case, though. Or at least it wasn’t always true. I admire Munro as much as I admire anyone in writing and really like the stories I read for today from her latest collection, Hateship, Friendship, Courthship, Loveship, Marriage. Twenty years ago, though, when I really became a student of stories, of the craft, I wouldn’t have said that she was a favorite author. I probably wouldn’t have recommended her. I read a couple of her early story collections—I read at an incredible rate back in grad school, several books a week—but nothing stuck. I was more infatuated with writers who would become my influences, writers who wrote in a more surreal or absurd realm, people like Robert Coover or Donald Barthelme, eventually George Saunders and Steven Millhauser and Aimee Bender. Munro was great and all, but she wasn’t the voice that was talking to me, her realistic tales of everyday Canadians not what I was looking for. Of course, so many people disagreed with me, explained how great she was, and that was over a decade before the word “Nobel” ever came into play. I acknowledged her, but didn’t study her. That was my bad.

Years later, Munro’s career having reached its pinnacle—and beyond—I am glad that I sat down to reevaluate. I’ve read stories here and there by Munro since and have noticed things about them that the young Mike, the MFA student, wouldn’t have noticed: structure, narrative voice, rate of reveal. Technique-type elements that I appreciate now, especially as a professor, that I didn’t appreciate when I was more focused on plot and premise. In fact, reading from Hateship, Friendship, Courthship, Loveship, Marriage today, I learned a lot. I sit in admiration. Just another great side effect of doing Story366.

The story I’m writing about, “Floating Bridge,” is the story of Jinny, a woman in her early thirties who has cancer and is more or less alone. She’s married to a wonderfully nice man, Neal, fourteen years her senior, who is funny, outgoing, and a provider, but not the most attentive husband. Maybe he’s in denial, unable to address Jinny’s condition head on, but Neal’s concern seems to be making things work, living a normal life, while Jinny needs more. He’s so unaware of her needs, in fact, she’s received a major update about her condition and hasn’t told him. Jinny lives most of the story in her own head, alone.

“Floating Bridge” starts that way, even more extremely, as Jinny bolts. Neal is having a meeting at the house, which Jinny has baked for and cleaned for, and without Neal knowing, she walks out, to the bus stop, no intent on coming back. Neal doesn’t realize she’s gone, and she sits at the bus stop for hours. The only reason she goes home is because the buses aren’t running. Had one come, Jinny probably gets on and disappears. As fate would have it, she goes home, Neal hasn’t realized she’d ever been gone, making a joke after she tells him what she’d done. It’s a telling introduction to this couple. Neal would be a great guy, a great partner, if only they never faced any adversity, if everything was always peachy. Jinny got cancer, though, so he’s more or less a smiling fool. The bad guy, een.

Neal eventually becomes obsessed with situating Helen, a teenage caregiver they’ve just hired to help Jinny around the house. The plot of the story more or less has Neal catering to Helen, who has shown up for work without shoes. Neal and Jinny drive Helen to a hospital where her sister works, as her sister was supposed to bring Helen’s shoes to give to her. She doesn’t. Despite Helen and Jinny’s complaints, Neal insists on going to the house where Helen stays, with a random family, out in the boonies, to fetch the footwear. Neal is trying to be the good guy—it so absurd to him that Helen has no shoes—that he doesn’t realize he’s embarrassing Helen and ignoring Jinny. She’s not well, it’s hot, and they don’t have air conditioning. He is so laser-focused on Helen, he’s forgetting his own cancer-stricken wife, for whom Helen exists in their world in the first place. Neal is as complex a character as Jinny, maybe more so, as every choice he makes drives the story, while poor Jinny just sits back, probably used to his inattentiveness, and watches in silent frustration.

The trio eventually finds their way to the farmhouse where Helen and her sister live, with a family who is not their family, a friendly bunch that invites everyone in for chili. Again, it’s hot (even though it’s Toronto), and Jinny just wants to go home. Neal wants chili, though, wants the adventure of meeting new people, and runs inside with Helen, leaving Jinny in the van, parked in the shade, shade that does diddly squat to comfort someone with cancer. Again, opportunity and circumstances dictate that Jinny walk away, so she does, leading to the climax and denouement of the story. Another character comes into play, the farmers’ young son, and he and Jinny go off together, find the floating bridge of the title, and connect in a surprising way. To find out what happens from there, you’ll have to read “Floating Bridge” yourself, but it’s worth it. It’s perfect.

Reading Alice Munro today has given me the opportunity to revisit this master of the craft, one of the true luminaries in the field in which I belong. I’m so grateful I’ve given myself this project, as otherwise, I might never have made this trip back to read a writer who has done as much for short stories as anyone. I call myself a big fan now. About time.

Alice Munro