July 4: “My Escapee” by Corinna Vallianatos

Happy Fourth of July, Story366! Raise your hand if you thought I would be doing “Fireworks” by Richard Ford today. I’ve been thinking of that story this past couple of days, an obvious selection if I wanted to stick with a theme, which I’ve done on past holidays. Since I’ve read that story before—albeit over twenty years ago—it doesn’t fit under the guidelines I set for Story366. Did I scan through the tables of contents of all my to-read books to find something appropriate? I did it for President’s Day, finding “Reagan’s Army in Retreat” in Jerry Gabriel’s collection. I didn’t do that for today, though, because I just didn’t. I did think of using an independent press book because, you know, it’s Independence Day, and I don’t think I even pulled that off, as today’s book is from the University of Massachusetts Press, and while it’s not a big-market New York press, I think university presses are technically different. Does anyone go on a picnic, watch fireworks, or just take a day off in today’s story? No, I don’t think that happens, either. So, for the Fourth of July, I’ve officially failed to do anything festive or in the spirit of America’s birthday. Forgive me.

Now that that’s off my chest, let’s get to the book I chose and the story in question, “My Escapee” from My Escapee by Corinna Vallianatos, out from said press as a winner of a Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction, sponsored by AWP. I read a few stories from Vallianatos’ book for today and have chosen the title story, also the first story, “My Escapee,” as it’s the story I’ve enjoyed the most, the story I can write on most easily.

“My Escapee” is about Genevieve, or Ginny, who is eighty-eight and lives in a nursing home in Yellow Springs, Ohio (cool town, home of Antioch College and Dave Chapelle). She’s been a resident at this home for a few months and like everyone who’s in a nursing home and in possession of their capacities, she’s not happy. Who would be? But she’s resigned to living there, to falling in the routine, and figuring out how she should feel about Margaret.

Margaret is Ginny’s longtime lover, partner, and roommate, a woman who lives on Cape Cod and sends Ginny packages almost daily. There are letters and keepsakes, but also items that confound both Ginny and we the readers. Early on, Ginny gets a brochure for a cruise to the Galapagos Islands, Margaret asking her if she wants to go; of course, that’s not possible: Margaret has stuck Ginny in a home several states away and isn’t visiting, so why would she take her on a cruise? Is Margaret fucking with Ginny? Is she coming to break her out? I thought of the title while reading and wondered: Is this a escape story, Ginny the geriatric Steve McQueen, digging tunnels under the shuffleboard court? Only one way to find out.

Who does come to visit Ginny is her nephew, Fellow—that’s his name, not some honorific—who does his best to comfort his aunt in her situation. He’s an interesting character, one of the few named people populating this tale (which means, of course he’s a major factor in the story).

What Vallianatos does that makes the story particularly interesting is make us doubt what’s going on throughout pretty much the entire story. The weird packages from Margaret bring an air of mystery to the story, but there’s also Ginny’s reliability: While Ginny seems to have control of her faculties, at least in her mind, other characters in the story seem to doubt her, questioning her choices, limiting her freedoms. Fellow does it. Nurses do it. Other patients treat her with kid gloves. The first-person narration doesn’t let on, but that’s what solidly executed unreliability is all about, everyone knowing what’s up except the narrator.

I hadn’t read anything by Corinna Vallianatos before today, though her stories have appeared in some of the top lit mags for a while, including Tin House, A Public Space, and The Gettysburg Review. She’s a talented storyteller and I’m glad I ran into her book.

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