Robert McCarthy, “Stag”
Robert McCarthy’s “Stag” (One Story 126, Sept. 10, 2009) has a brisk and vivid scene, but overall it wades through a thick brew of symbolism and description. It’s a story of a father, Sean, who leaves his alcoholic wife, Gina, when their daughter Sienna is born. He was a heavy drinker himself, but he becomes more responsible now that a child is involved. Gina feels no such need to change. Sean buys a rickety house near a river and a dump, and plans to raise Sienna there on his own. On their first night at the house, a stag breaks through a set of glass doors, and Sean has to pin it down and strangle it in order to protect Sienna. After that, he gets a call to go pick up Gina from a bar.
The story plods through these events. McCarthy is passionate about lists, so that we get a list of things that may harm Sienna at the new house (1), of animals that could be seen through the glass doors (4), and so on. Furthermore, Sean’s friend Doug produces unnecessarily elaborate advice, portentously called the Law of Wrong Numbers (3, 21). As I said about Haigh’s “Desiderata,” many details are clumsily inserted, and they appear contrived. We suffer through runaway images like this one: Sean had “stopped his own driking, [but] Gina had ramped up hers to cover the shortfall. As if when they’d married, the two of them had signed some contract with the God of Liquor, and now she was the only one holding up her end of the deal. Except that’s what they’d agreed Sienna would be—a new deal—all others null and void” (6). Give me a break.
Even what I described as a brisk and vivid scene, the fight with the stag that rams into Sean’s home, would have benefitted from further revision. Notice how the verbs tear and pitch recur on those few pages; out of respect for word territory, and to make the description crisper, substitutes were in order. And the twin ideas of moon and moonlight are overused throughout the story. Word-search could say just how many times they are used, but it seems that, every time the author wants to heighten the emotional pitch of a description, the moon lends a hand.
Above all, I take issue with the story’s desperate attempt at symbolism. Sometimes, when less directed by the author, the symbolism is clever. Sean is vain about his thick beard, and thinks it resembles a knight’s. He dwells long on this idea (11), and it becomes over the top when the thought is revisited near the end (20). This idle comparison turns into a revealing caricature when Sean is forced to wrestle the buck that fell on its side, mounts it, and struggles while it gallops on the air spraying urine and tearing the room apart. The knight’s glory is further mocked when his stately beard becomes home to a flock of fleas that leaped from the deer (18).
See, that is just about all and well. But then there’s the anxiousness around the deep meaning at work when Sean hit the END key in his cellphone and hung up on Gina (3). Or the true sense that flickered around Sean after battling the stag (“An idea, some need for… but it left him” ). Or the darkness from an abandoned tent that “rushed inside” Sienna and made Sean aware of the mortality that would torment his daughter (19). Near the end, a “deeper tickle now rippled inside him but still no nearer to understanding” (22). As the story closes, Sean realizes that “[m]aybe the little house was actually nearer to the river than the dump” (23).
As you can tell, the story is overconscious of its own need for transcendence. And that, along with the specific ailments in the story’s language, makes it drag along. A couple of revisions would’ve boosted the story’s strengths, which really aren’t that hard to find among the thistles.