Emily Raboteau, “The Babysitter” (McSweeney’s 49)


McSweeney’s 49 is devoted to cover stories: remakes of well-known stories by contemporary authors. This has been my favorite volume of McSweeney’s. Some of the authors I liked best I hadn’t read before, so it was a good find on top of a good read, particularly with Jess Walter.

In Emily Raboteau’s “The Babysitter” (after Alice Munro’s “Some Women”), a twelve-year-old, Dana, babysits for a wealthy professor, Eleanor Fagan, who recently lost her husband, shortly after the couple had adopted two small children from Ethiopia. The messiness of the home, and the utter neglect with which Mrs. Fagan lives her life, mark Dana’s time at the Fagan home.

Things become messier when Dennis, the son of Eleanor Fagan’s deceased husband, shows up and brings laughter, drugs, and sex into the house. At the end, jealous that Dennis was having sex with the au pair (Femke), Dana starts a fire that gets blamed on Dennis and leads to Eleanor Fagan relocating.

“The Babysitter” worked very well within Dana’s psyche. It dramatizes effectively Dennis’s chaotic, irresistible pull. There are underlying tensions, even racial tensions, that build up to good effect toward the conflagration at the end. The story has good insights and humor, and the narrator has a good voice. The story is told years after the fact, but retains the sense of a young observer in a hectic environment.

This quote highlights (one form of) charisma (and sexism) and captures Dennis’s impact on the Fagan household: “I started to see there were some types of people—men—whom others liked to be around, not because of what they, the men, had achieved but because of their cocksure delivery. A pleasure with themselves, an ease with putting their hand on your shoulder, back, or knee, a confidence that their expectations were more extraordinary or entertaining that yours, and that you couldn’t help but take pleasure in their company. There might be some folks—folks like me—who didn’t buy into this, but that didn’t stop them from selling” (p. 53).

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