June 13, 2020: “A Sacrifice” by Simon Van Booy

What a Saturday, Story366!

Today our neighborhood hosted its annual neighborhood cleanup. Mostly, this is the neighborhood association renting three large Dumpsters—like the traincar-sized kind—putting them in a local church parking lot, then inviting people to come and get rid of their junk, as well as their overabundance of yard waste. Normally, you can drop the stuff off at the church, dump it into the Dumpsters, or you can schedule a pickup and volunteers will come with trucks and haul it off for you. Because of COVID-19, there were no pickups, but the Karen and I still decided to get rid of as much stuff as we could, this being our one opportunity to do so easily, without paying dumping fees (no free pickup for large items in Springfield).

The thorn in our sides of late has been the tremendous pile of brush and branches we cut down at the outset of the quarantine, a few weeks in a row of cleaning out our jungle of a backyard. We took twenty-five giant bags of leaves to a farm, and have been either burning or getting rid of the brush since. Ninety percent of it was left, though, and we had to get it out of our yard. The problem was, most of the branches were longer than either of our cars. Either we’d need a truck to haul all of it, or we’d need to make everything smaller.

Enter the chainsaw. Karen got me this Craftsman chainsaw years ago, but I’ve been avoiding it for years. Six years or so ago—I’ve mentioned this here before—I had an accident with the hedge clippers, almost took two of my fingers off, grabbing onto the running blades instead of the handle (for reasons of plain stupidity: I wasn’t paying close enough attention). So, I’d been gunshy. However, since then, I’ve worked three Boy Scout Christmas tree lots and have handled a chainsaw there many times—we offer fresh cuts. So, with this unmanageable pile of brush, I thought I’d give it a whirl, slice it and dice it so we could either burn it or haul it away.

Major chainsaw disappointment ensued. I had the thing oiled up, tightened, checked out, etc., but five seconds into chainsawing, the blade fell off the mechanism. I unplugged—heh-heh—and took it apart, put the blade back on, tightened it, and tried again: The blade fell off right away again. What the fuck?

By this time, Karen had secured an old neighbor of ours from the church lot, friendly Scott with his pickup. Scott brought another guy, and as we loaded everything into Scott’s bed, the new guy took a look at the chainsaw: He did the same things I did, taking everything apart, putting it back together. He said I should be good to go.

Only problem was, all the brush and branches were gone. The chainsaw was ready, but untested. It sits in my garage, mocking me. I’m thinking of trees in our yard we might not want. I mean, who needs shade?

What I’m getting at here with this (long and not-so-interesting) anecdote: I really wanted to tear into a huge pile of wood with a chainsaw today, to just go off, and I didn’t get to do it.

This afternoon, I spent some time with Simon Van Booy‘s 2018 collection, The Sadness of Beautiful Things, out from Penguin. Van Booy is an author whose work I did not know before getting this book, despite the fact he’s written several novels, a couple of children’s books, and another collection. So, I got to go in fresh on yet another book and author. Here we go.

I’m focusing on the first story, “A Sacrifice,” today, as it does something that I see Van Booy do, something I find interesting about his work. The story starts out with a local family’s (local in Ireland, fyi) house burning down, a family nobody really cares for. They have a litter of kids, all knobs, kids who yell insults at adults as they walk by, bully their kids, that sort of unruliness that makes them come off as thugs. But the mom and the dad seem like decent people, and now their house has burnt down and it comes out the mom once used the fire insurance money to fix one of her daughter’s crooked teeth instead. With no place to live, the local church puts them up in an abandoned church building, at least until an unknown benefactor from the neighborhood pays to have their house rebuilt. So, cool story about a lucky family, the McCrutchens.

But no, wait. When they move into their new house—everyone likes them now, as they’ve been humbled—they throw a housewarming party and invite the town. The neighbors especially want to know who it was who paid for these lush new digs. Van Booy then introduces us to Penny Carr, who says she’s found out the secret. We then follow Penny, who the next day goes to check on the only neighbor who didn’t attend the party, old widowed Kitty O’Donnell. She brings Kitty food, sits and talks with her, and Kitty admits she’s the one who paid for the big house, that she’s actually worth millions. So, cool! The story shifts to this relationship between Penny and Kitty, this kind woman who saved this homeless family from the streets.

Nope. The story really focuses on something else, on Kitty’s origins. We go back a hundred years, to a woman named Celia. Celia was a young girl who fell in love with a young boy, a young boy who went off to fight in the Great War, who was killed within a week. Celia, however, is left with his child, and in Ireland, back in the day, that wasn’t tolerated. Celia is sent to a nunnery, where she cooks and cleans until the baby is born, which she has to give away without seeing it (didn’t I just read that in a story a few days ago?). Celia, normally, would be subjected to a lifetime in the convent, only her mother, sympathetic, buys Celia a ticket to America so she can start over, be free. There, Celia finds various jobs before settling in a bakery, where she apprentices under a Sicilian named Reggie because she knows how to make bread. A few years later, Reggie leaves to start his own bakery and takes Celia with her. Eventually, they marry, become quite successful, even rich.

Celia tells Reggie, after a few years, about the baby she gave up and Reggie thinks that Celia’s next move should be to return to Ireland and bring her child home to them. Celia does so, and after this and that happens, Celia decides her daughter is better off with her adoptive parents and leaves her there. Years later, however, when she and Reggie die, that young daughter—Kitty O’Donnell!—discovers she was adopted and inherits their vast fortune, all in one day. This is why Kitty’s able to pay for the McCrutchen’s new house and why she tells kind Penny the story, all those years later.

What I like about this story is its spiraling topic shift. Certainly, a story could have been told about the rough McCrutchens, how and why they didn’t get along with anyone. It could have been about their time in the old church house, how their house was rebuilt, or even about the party they had when they moved in. Instead, Van Booy uses it as a weird intro, a segue into Penny—who seems like an intermediary, at best—then to Kitty O’Donnell, and eventually, Celia, whose story is certainly the most drawn. That’s what, three or four layers removed from where we started, ties it together. Interesting way to tell a story. I liked it.

“The Green Blanket” is about the Stucci family, a sort of meltdown by Mr. Stucci that causes Mrs. Stucci to call their daughter, Benedetta, to fly home, across the country, as it might be the end. What they thought was a stroke is something else, something a bit in the sci-fi realm, a malady that is cured in a curious and creative way.

“The Hitchhiker” features an interesting night in the lives of Ben, said hitchhiker, and a woman twice his age, Diane, who picks him up and drives with him, all night, a deeply moving experience for both parties involved.

A story very much like “A Sacrifice,” “The Saddest Case of True Love” starts in one place and then eventually becomes about something completely different. We begin with a guy getting a postcard from a woman, a woman who works for a friend of his wife’s in Florence, a woman who announces, in the postcard, that her father has passed. From there, we get the story of how the narrator and this woman, Soyeon, met, how she showed him around Florence once when he came to use the wife’s friend’s apartment, which eventually becomes the story of her parents and how she came to Italy, and lastly, the story of her childhood. Lots of right-angle turns in this one, which, like “A Sacrifice,” made this story more interesting, such a complex and rewarding structure.

Simon Van Booy’s fiction seems effortless and fresh, despite the fact he’s doing some really complex things with structure, bending expectations in The Sadness of Beautiful Things. I’m always on the lookout for voices I haven’t read before, and when they do something new, even if it’s just a little bit different than what I’ve encountered before, I think of that as a win. So, a win today, which makes for a good day.