November 27: “The Quick-Change Artist” by Cary Holladay`

What’s up, Story366! Today is Sunday and it’s the last day of my nine-day Thanksgiving Break. At this point, my tanks should be refilled and I should be caught up on all the work I’d fallen behind on, but really, I’m only good on one of those. I’ve gotten eight hours of sleep most of these off days, including a whopping nine hours last night, which is unheard of for me. I didn’t even want to take a nap today (but did doze off once for about four seconds … then someone beeped their horn, I swerved back out of their lane). Am I caught up on my work? No, not really. I do have a clean house, though, and our freezer is filled with turkey and turkey chili. So, really, it’s break even.

Sundays have also become the night I watch TV, the only night, starting a few years ago with Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones. Right now, my DVR is set to record Westworld and The Walking Dead. I’m not sure if I’m ever going to watch this season of The Walking Dead—I already know who Neegan killed, and otherwise, I was getting bored with the show’s repetition—but Westworld is my new obsession. I watch YouTube recap and theory videos about the show all week, on top of rewatching the entire series, picking up on what I missed (which is a lot). Next Sunday is the season finale and I’m stoked because the show is so good (but I’m sad because it’s ending already). Because I am who I am, I’m also dreading the cliffhanger that will no doubt drive me nuts until next fall. I will celebrate the show and that last episode next Sunday, however, by doing a story from Charles Yu’s second collection, Sorry Please Thank You, as Charlie is one of the main writers on Westworld and is generally awesome in every way.

That’s me getting ahead of myself, however, as today I read from Cary Holladay‘s collection The Quick-Change Artist, out from Swallow Press, which seems to be an imprint of Ohio University Press, or at least related, as they have the same web address. In any case, these were the first stories I read by Holladay, though she is the author of several other books, including two other collections of stories. I started reading with the first story of the book, also the title story, and went on from there, getting three stories in. I’m going to write about “The Quick-Change Artist,” so here we go.

“The Quick-Change Artist” centers on Vangie, an eighteen-year-old woman living in rural Virginia, in the town of Glen Allen, at the crossroads of something and something. The story opens with Vangie fishing with her blind brother, Luke, on the bank of the river at night, her dreaming about her life, what it could be. Vangie works in the town’s big resort hotel, cooking and cleaning, and Luke lives nearby in a school for the blind. It’s 1928, by the way, which matters for a lot of reasons, mainly because the Civil War is not only still a thing to the locals, but some of the locals were actually in the Civil War, its end only sixty-five years prior (though those locals are very old). There’s also a Confederate parade every year (which takes place in this story) and the circumstances of Luke’s blindness are also questionable, a local doctor completely removing his eyeballs to stop the spread of fever and infection (I didn’t go to medical school, but it seems like that’s something that’s done differently nowadays). Vangie is also seeing Jolly, the hotel’s magician, who does shows on the weekends and is older and “foreign.” Two sisters own and run the resort and are good to Vangie and Luke, though it’s implied that they may have screwed the previous owner out of the place, both he and his lawyer in the bag when the papers were drafted and signed.

Wow, that’s a lot for a story and we haven’t even gotten to the plot yet! That’s more or less instigated when Luke, who is blind, remember, goes missing. Vangie left him at the riverbank to go and meet Jolly, and when she goes to bring him some fried chicken from the hotel a couple of days later, he’s not there—he never came back from when Vangie checked him out. It’s important, perhaps, to note, that Luke is a really skilled blind kid, one who, according to Vangie, gets around better than most people with sight, which is why she was okay with having him find his way back to the school. Vangie, needless to say,  who is not the most reliable of characters.  Still, her blind brother’s missing, he was in her charge, and appropriately, she’s flipping out, trying to get the entire town to help her find them (which includes, sadly, dragging the river).

And this is where “The Quick-Change Artist” gets weird. There’s this blind kid missing, he was last seen near a river at night, and it seems as if people in the town and around the hotel are trying to keep Vangie from finding him, as if it’s not a priority … or that there’s a reason for them to keep her from her task. Holladay turns the story into kind of a mystery, but there’s a lot of elements and variables that make the situation hard to decipher. For one, there’s Jolly, this quick-change artist and magician and stranger whom no one trusts except Vangie. There’s skeptical headmaster at the blind school. There’s a semi-cooperative sheriff. There’s the sketchy doctor at the hotel, the one who took out Luke’s eyes. There’s the seductive widow of the hotel’s previous owner. On an episode of Law & Order, these people would be called “suspects,” many of them serving as red herrings, but it’s hard to determine what’s truly going on. Vangie also has vivid dreams, which always throw me in a story, and there’s also an uncanny magical quality to Jolly, something beyond trickery. Is everything in this story real? I found myself asking some of that because of these elements and because how odd things get.

Nothing’s stranger, however, than the Major, a one-hundred-year-old Civil War veteran who pops up in the middle of the story with a marriage proposal for Vangie. He has a pension (wait, from where, the Confederacy?!) and promises it all to to Vangie if she’ll just be his bride. She doesn’t have to love him, he makes it clear, but mostly likely, it involves him putting his wrinkly self all over her in a sexual way—that much is implied. Vangie is grossed out by it, the thought of this man, eighty-eight years her senior, naked and in bed, and she doesn’t want to do it. Her Grammah thinks it’s a great idea, seeing as how the old man will be dead soon, anyway, and she’s got few prospects to extend her past being a maid in the resort her whole life.

All of this courting and discussion of dowries is happening, remember, while Luke is missing, Vangie’s poor, beloved, blind brother. What’s going on here? I read the story as being mostly real, but there does seem to be at least a bit of a surreal element to it, perhaps implied more than definitive. In the end—more stuff happens, by the way, including some extra twists—I enjoyed that about this story, that it wasn’t a straight-up mystery or coming-of-age tale, but one that made me consider how stories are written, made me read the story again. I like this piece, a lot, because of how it challenged me as a reader.

The Quick-Change Artist is a collection of linked stories, as the pieces all take place in and around this resort hotel in Glen Allen, Virginia, in different eras and time periods. I haven’t read far enough into the book to see if stories cross over, but I suspect they do, as Lila, the protagonist of the second story, lived in the resort as a child the same time the events of the first story were going on. I liked all three stories I read and hope to read more by Cary Holladay, whose work is distinct and very good.

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