June 7: “Werewolf” by Anna Noyes

Is it weird, Story366, that I just read Goodnight, Moon to my son right after reading, Goodnight, Beautiful Women by Anna Noyes? Not really that much of a coincidence, considering we read Goodnight, Moon to our son at least once a day, and by once a day, I mean like four or five times in a row until the little hellion calms down and goes to sleep. So, combining the frequency of the readings of Margaret Wise Brown’s classic with the fact I read from a different short story collection every day, it should be no shock that sooner or later, I’d read from a story collection that had a Goodnight, _______ construction to the title. Right? Airtight logic.

Side note: Margaret Wise Brown died in 1952 at the age of 42. MMA oddity Kimbo Slice died yesterday, at 42. Coincidence? Probably.

Not too often that I get to post about a book that came out the same day, but that’s happening here today, as Goodnight, Beautiful Women officially came out today. That doesn’t happen too often because I’m just not as on top of getting advanced copies of books as I should be. With Noyes’ book, I did everything right. After reviewing Colin Barrett’s Young Skins a couple of months ago, I dicked around on the Grove Atlantic site, eventually finding their catalogue. The only story collection they had coming out was Noyes’, so I wrote to some anonymous “Contact Us” auto-email thing, and lo and behold, an ARC of Noyes’ book showed up at my house like a week later. Then, last month, a shiny, beautiful final copy of Goodnight, Beautiful Women also showed up at my door. So, ultimate success, and the press and author get rewarded with a timely review.

Did that get me to write other presses and ask for books, for ARCs, for final copies? Nah. Got lazy. But since it worked for Grove Atlantic, I should try it. The worst thing that can happen is the press send a hit squad to kill my family, but I doubt the worst will happen.

I read a few stories from Noyes’ book today, her debut, and liked the stories very much. I read the title story, “Goodnight, Beautiful Women,” which is about a young woman taking a trip with her mom and her mom’s live-in boyfriend even though the mom is in bad shape physically and none of them have any money. I also read “Hibernation,” the first story in the book, about a woman whose husband has just committed suicide, the rest of the story alternating between their backstory and what she does now that she’s alone.

I’m writing about the third story I read, “Werewolf,” because I love werewolf stories and this one had everything: Lots of blood, lots of savagery, farm animals being ripped apart, jeans and flannel shirts being ripped apart, hair growing where hair wasn’t before … wait, no, “Werewolf” isn’t that kind of werewolf story. The werewolf in the title actually comes from an adult party game, one of those role-playing games that involves blindfolds and guessing who in the room is what person in a narrative. Some people are sheep, some people are villagers, and one someone’s the werewolf. I’m not exactly sure how it’s played or how it works, but the protagonist, Claire, and her husband wake up the morning after a party, a party at which Werewolf was played, a party at which Claire was the werewolf. She ate the shit out of everyone at that party, and because nobody suspected sweet, quiet Claire, nobody guessed Claire. Claire won Werewolf.

Only, that’s a really small part of the story, more of the inciting incident for a huge backstory, a story about guilt. You see, it bugs the shit out of Claire that she was the werewolf, and even more so that nobody guessed it was her. Claire actually has a dark secret, one that makes her more the werewolf than anyone would suspect. At least in her guilt-ridden logic.

Claire’s secret? Back when she was a kid, six years old, she was raped by a worker guy at her grandmother’s farm, in a playhouse. That incident, which she doesn’t share with anyone, somehow gets translated into a lie. Her bleeding, the abrasions a doctor later finds—caused by the worker—are blamed on her nine-year-old cousin Paul, who has Down’s Syndrome, who supposedly poked at her privates with a stick while she was in the tub. Claire lied, for some reason, allowing adults to blame Paul instead of explaining what happened at the playhouse, which he didn’t understand (which, at six, is a pretty good defense). As you might guess, poor Paul gets in a shitload of trouble, life-changing trouble, kind of reminding me of Rain Man (Dustin Hoffman burning little Tom Cruise in the bath and getting sent away) and Atonement (Saiorse Ronan falsely accusing James McAvoy of rape, him getting sent off to WWI, getting him killed instead of him going to Oxford).

So, adult Claire has lived with this guilt, this Paul guilt, since she was six. When she was seventeen, she tried to tell her mom and her Aunt Ray (Paul’s mom) that Paul didn’t touch her, but to fuck her up even more, they don’t believe her, accusing her of changing the details in her head to let poor Paul off easy. Paul isn’t let off easy, though, and Claire has to live with that. The frontstory—the morning has Claire in her thirties, so this has gone on for twenty years, and the only thing Claire can do is spend one day a week with Paul, visit him in his home, try to be kind to him. Or is it the only thing she can do?

Got to give props to Noyes for how she structures her story. To use this title, “Werewolf,” explain the party game, then use all that as a launch point for a long backstory, the story that’s really the story, is pretty gutsy. Certainly not how we draw it up in fiction classes. I do, however, tell my students that the best stories, the anthologized greats, the ones in the big magazines, are the ones that break the rules, exist in a way no other story has before it. Throw out the playbook, in other words. “Werewolf” is a story like that, for sure.

One thing I noticed about all three stories I’ve read from Goodnight, Beautiful Women is how they’re about people taking care of other people. The protagonist in the title story takes care of her sickly mom. The protagonist in “Hibernation” nurses her husband through mental illness for years, still unable to prevent his suicide. And Claire, she’s caring for Paul, trying her best to make up for her lie (though it’s possible, as Paul’s closest and most responsible relative, she may have done that, anyway). I’m not sure if the other stories in the collection follow this pattern, but it seems like Noyes has something for caretakers, a soft place in her heart for those who tend to others, a character trait, a motif, I’ve not seen in a collection before.

So, happy Publication Day to Anna Noyes for her collection Goodnight, Beautiful Women. It’s not only new, but it’s pretty great.