October 23: “Living to Be a Hundred” by Robert Boswell


Good Sunday to you, Story366! Today, I’ve been in a blissful state, as you might imagine, as we’re still less than twenty-four hours since the Cubs clinched the National League pennant, their first in seventy-one years. I’ve been in a daze since then, every once in a while saying to Karen, “Hey, Karen,” and when she says, “Yeah?” I say, “The Cubs are going to the World Series!” I’ve watched the highlights, over and over again. I’ve rewatched the post-game interviews. I’ve read all the articles. I’ve shopped for gear. I’ve talked to friends and family. I’ve washed my vending uniform and started packing for the trip to Chicago. I’ve fully celebrated this victory in every way a non-player with other responsibilities and limited means can celebrate it.

Hoping for some sense of normalcy—and taking advantage of the fact I stayed in Missouri this weekend—the fam and I took our yearly trip to a pumpkin patch/corn maze/farm, the type of place you find around here, in Ohio, around the outskirts of Chicago, and I’m guessing, everywhere. It’s the kind of place where you buy your pumpkins, but can also get some cider, some baked goods, go on a hayride, pet some large animals, play old-timer games, and maybe get lost in a corn maze. I’m not a big fan of corn mazes—I actually got lost in one once and my claustrophobia set in, big time—but otherwise, it’s a fun way to spend a weekend day in the fall. Since the Cubs have a couple of days off and I’ve not thought about football yet this year, it was a great day for that annual trip. We picked more pumpkins, the boys had hay sticking out of the socks and underwear, and as we headed to the car, my allergies kicked in (I petted this Brown Swiss, for, like, a really long time …). Since we’ll be gone this weekend, today was our last chance, so, yay, Fall!

I also read a couple of stories from Robert Boswell‘s collection Living to be 100, out from Knopf originally, the second story collection by Boswell I’ve delved into (after his first, Dancing in the Movies). I also got to publish a story by Boswell in Mid-American Review not that long ago—he’s a super-nice guy—so I was familiar with his work and knew that I liked it. The stories I read today were no exception, and today, I’ll write about the title story, “Living to Be a Hundred.”

Note: The title of the book, or at least what’s on the cover, says, Living to be 100 (see below), while the story’s title, inside, is “Living to Be a Hundred,” so it’s a bit different, something to do with the cover image, which I think is supposed to look like a calendar, the days peeling off? It reminds me of Katie Chase’s story, “Man and Wife” from her collection Man & Wife, how one used the ampersand, while …. Wait: I just realized how silly this paragraph is.

“Living to Be a Hundred” is about Castellani, a guy who works construction, lives with a woman named Linda, and has a friend named Harvis, who works with him. Castellani studied anthropology in college, then ended up in a bunch of dead-end jobs before finding the construction gig, which pays better. Still, he and Linda—who wants to go back to school for library science—want something more. They have fallen into ruts, though, spending money on booze and dinners before they get a chance to save any of it, so they’re in their thirties and Castellani is taking carpet scraps home from work because the two can’t afford anything better. That leads into the majority of the action of the story, Castellani, Linda, and Harvis spreading pieces of scrap carpet across their floor, gluing and ironing it down, grueling work in the dead heat of summer. The three have conversations as they sweat, both Castellani and Harvis noticing how demure Linda is, sweating, her blouse falling from her body as she’s on all fours, her breasts in full view. In fact, nude Linda is a reoccurring image, as she often in a state of undress, mostly when she’s alone with Castellani, but a couple of other times, too, in a more public way. This helps tension build in the story, and not just the sexual kind.

Along with all that, there are scenes with Castellani and Harvis at work, putting up units at an apartment (or maybe condo) complex, working with a couple of other guys, guys who like to bully and egg-on Harvis. Castellani defends his friend when he can, but Harvis is a bit pathetic. He can’t get a girlfriend, plus it’s implied he’s kind of weak in other areas, too. More tension, and at times, the men raise their tools, their hammers and such, fights almost breaking out. Eventually, one does.

There’s also the scenes between Castellani and Linda alone, a couple who is clearly in love but silently at a crossroads. They have a life, want a different one, but are stuck because they can’t get any traction. They also have this friend, Harvis, whom trouble seems to follow, no matter what he’s doing, be it in his brief career as a purse snatcher or when he’s getting his friends’ aging cat fried on the power lines. Harvis holds Castellani and Linda back, as if he’s their no-good, underachieving kid, and while I won’t reveal much more of the plot, I will say there are a couple of climaxes, one while carpet-tacking, another at the job site, one lending itself to the other. Boswell builds tension for so long, by the end of his story, he’s left no choice for things to explode, in a couple of different ways.

Living to be 100 is over twenty years old, and whenever I read books from that era, by writers who published (and studied) in the seventies and eighties, I also seem to sense the Carver in them. This complex trio, how they interact, how elegantly simple the scenes flow, all remind me of Carver’s coffee table stories, couples slugging down gin and skirting around delicate subjects, then not skirting less. I see that in “Living to Be a Hundred,” but you can certainly see Robert Boswell’s evolution, too, as his structure and characters are more complex, on top of the fact he has his own voice. It’s almost as if the directions that Carver held himself back from—minimalism, you know—Boswell takes better advantage of, sees where some of those plots can go if the couples actually leave the coffee table, if the stories’ timespans had stretched more than a day. Boswell is a master storyteller and he handles himself well in these tales. I enjoyed this book and hope to read his latest, The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards, next.