Ahahaha, so remember how I said after “Nightingale” and “A Good Man” I was going to read something more light-hearted? Remember the glittering, glamorous one-day comic relief that was Dorothy Parker? Well, today’s short story is about HELL.
Intrigued? Good. You should be. This is absolutely the most haunting story of all those I have read so far in my 30 day reading challenge. Jonathan Lethem’s The Happy Man is speculative and though a little bit longer at 24 pages, I can’t recommend it highly enough. This story appears in Lethem’s anthology The Wall in the Sky, The Wall of the Eye, which is fully worth hunting down a hard copy of, as the Google Books link only offers a limited preview.
(Note: the synopsis is so lengthy, and the story itself so much better, that it might be better just to read the story on this one!)
“The Happy Man” by Jonathan Lethem
[Abridged] In Hell I’m a small boy. The beginning is always the same. I’m at that table, in that damned garden, waiting for the witch.
The witch is supposed to be making us breakfast. We’re supposed to wait. Quietly.
Time is a little slow there, at Hell’s entrance. I’ve waited there with the other children, bickering, playing with the silverware, curling the lace doily under my setting into a tight coil, for what seems like years. Breakfast is never served.
But I’m leaving something out.
We sit in a semi-circle. That’s to make room for the witch’s horse. He’s waiting for breakfast, too.
The witch’s horse is disgusting. His forelegs are chained and staked to keep him at the table. He’s sitting on his tail, so he can’t swat the flies which gather and drink at the corners of his mouth.
That’s how Hell begins. Time in Hell doesn’t start until you get up from the garden table.
Tom has died, gone to Hell, and returned to life on earth. In fact, Tom’s soul returns frequently to be with his wife, Maureen, and twelve-year-old son, Peter, and to work and provide for them (when he died Maureen was still in school and in debt; something had to be done. With the proper paperwork, Tom’s body was thawed and released into their custody.). There’s just one problem: the visits on earth never last long.
For his family these visits are both curses and blessings: they allow them to see him again, to love him, to be with him in the flesh; however, the visits are estranged, as Tom is inevitably dead and cannot stay. It is a sort of cycle of loss and gain, loss and gain, and in some respects perhaps a crueler reality than death. Tom appears normal and is fully functional—can hold a job and a conversation—but when his soul is absent his body remains, a zombie. Apparently there is a culture of soul-migrators in this day and age, for we learn of doctors and pills and therapy and support groups available for those that cross over.
Tom’s son, Peter, who used to be into computer games and D & D and rock before his father died, makes it his mission to computer-map Hell based on his father’s accounts (perhaps harboring the misconception that, like just another dungeon, plotting a map will help find the way out). Tom narrates all; Peter plots it.
Usually his soul spends a week in his personal Hell. In his Hell Tom is a boy of eight or nine. At the entrance time moves slowly and it’s always the same: he sits at a table with three other children and a horrid horse—the witch’s horse—waiting for the witch to serve breakfast. But she never does. The children are hungry and restless and get to various trouble, but the witch (a beautiful woman) only ever pops out of the house every so often to say breakfast will be ready soon (but never is). Time in Hell only starts once one gets up from the garden table.
After the witch’s garden Tom runs through Field of Tubers, twisted roots like potatoes or knees that bleed when you kick them. It is always night when he gets to the other side.
After the Tubers is the robot maker: an old man in a welding helmet who makes wiry, pathetic robots and never welds. The man seeks an apprentice to help him solve a problem: Colonel Eagery, one of his best creations, he says, went renegade and began assembling robots of its own—robots who dismantle the old man’s work. But Tom knows better: Eagery (whom Tom calls the Happy Man) isn’t a robot. His and the old man’s robots duke it out in the pavilion, a ruined battle arena glowing with the radioactive bits of the robot maker’s broken works. The old man’s robots are always defeated, and afterward he weeps.
In his soul’s absence, it would seem, a migrator’s body continues on; keeps living and working. Once, when Tom came back, he was in the middle of a public service announcement. That same day he went to the bar to borrow himself some time to re-adjust, and, in a chance encounter, met up with another migrator. The two compare notes. This other migrator’s Hell is different: urban instead of rural; composed of garbage trucks and shootings and nuclear war that had turned all the animals intelligent and vicious. He must spend ten days in his Hell, he says, for every day he is present outside it. And usually, when he comes back, he finds himself drinking with workmates (who are all strangers to him). The men trade numbers, but have difficulty meeting thereafter: one or the other is always away.
When Tom leaves the robot maker he goes north. He passes through a thicket of trees whose leaves are razor blades and comes upon shrunken homes: tiny doors and windows built into a giant dirt mound, with tiny people to match. Then, as always the storm comes: a miniature black whirlwind that sends razor blades flying across the tiny village and reduces is it to rubble. There is never anything he can do. When it is all over, and he gets up from his cover (somewhat cut and scraped himself) he is staring at Colonel Eagery: the Happy Man.
Colonel Eagery is the one wild card in Tom’s Hell sequence. He appears at different points and places in the chain, and encounters with him seem to be what spirit Tom back to the real world.
This time he picks Tom up after the razor storm. He’s a jovial man, cracking jokes that Tom doesn’t understand. He offers Tom food (or rather, a hellish imitation of food: tiny, sugar-coated body parts in a bowl with milk). Eagery produces some ties, knots them together, and loops them around two trees. He gets Tom to hold them. Tom, trusting Eagery, permits himself to then be tied between the trees. Eagery then snips away Tom’s clothes and does the thing you might guess.
That’s when Tom crosses over.
This time when he comes home his uncle Frank is visiting. Frank seems to want to stay for a while. They are family. But Frank seems oddly uncomfortable. “If anybody calls,” he says, “I’m not here.”
Problems at home: after intimacy with Maureen they talk. Maureen, dejected, is beginning to lose faith in Tom’s ability to come back. If she lets herself get comfortable, she says, she’ll just feel ripped off again. They talk about Frank; from what is said and the conspicuous gaps in conversation, it becomes apparent that Maureen is starting to see someone else. He leaves, and takes a bottle for a walk around the neighborhood.
In the west of his Hell is a ghost town. In its dusty street, a crying baby. It’s windy and the baby is cold. But if Tom picks up the baby it becomes the Happy Man, every time.
At home Tom wakes in a drunken stupor. Uncle Frank makes him breakfast. They go out to the beach and Tom asks Frank what’s got him on the run. He’s avoiding the mob, Frank replies. Tom tells him to stay as long as he likes with them; he’s family. Tom realizes he hasn’t spent any time with Peter yet on this visit, so he and Frank go to pick Peter up from school. Peter is in computer class, and all of his friends are engrossed in the computer Hell he’s created.
Maureen gives out to Tom for sucking Peter into his Hell world. They fight—or would, but Tom doesn’t let his voice rise. Maureen cries (so he won’t, Tom feels, attack her). Things are really over between them, Tom realizes.
A bag of emotions thwaps Tom over the head the next morning. He’s going back again, he realizes, while his wife is out, probably with her lover; their son is left home alone; he won’t have another chance for god knows how long to get in another word about the affair, and there isn’t much time left to be with his son. Desperate, he goes to Peter’s room.
“Hey, Dad,” says Peter. “I had an idea about Hell.” Peter shows him something on the computer. Why, Peter asks, has he never tried to go into the witch’s house before?
Tom begins to get unbalanced. The emotions, the stresses of Hell are not easily communicated. Peter pretends not to notice the tension in his voice, and continues by saying that Uncle Frank reminds him of somebody, somebody from Hell, like the robot maker or—
Tom hits him.
The he goes back to Hell.
He tries Peter’s suggestion and enters the witch’s house. Eagery is there, with the witch (one guess what they might be doing) and Eagery, upset at being interrupted, drops Tom into a baking pie and slams the oven door shut.
He is transported back. Peter was right: the witch’s house was a shortcut.
Realizing he hasn’t been gone long, Tom decides to pretend his soul is still absent (ostensibly to spy on Maureen, but also partially to avoid having to talk to his family, which has become a tormenting task in and of itself). He is parked in front of the TV when they all arrive home and sit beside him. Peter (on whose face he can see a great purple bruise) squirms a while, and at length suggests that he (Tom) needs a shower. Tom has an epiphany: he isn’t a zombie. He’s a more like a big, stupid pet that eats and drinks and needs to be cleaned and gets in the way.
At dinner, passive, Tom notices how they avoid discussing Peter’s injury and Frank’s troubles.
Finally, it’s time for bed. Maureen, not wise to the ruse, calls her lover when she can’t sleep. Tom begins to overhear embarrassing things, and get angry, and wonder just what it is he’s trying to prove, (fists balled), and then—
He bolts upright. Maureen, shocked, quickly hangs up the phone. For an awful few moments Tom presses her face into the pillow, telling her to be quiet. Then it becomes apparent why: Tom has noticed an intruder in the house. Down the hall he can see Peter’s nightlight is off, which Peter would never permit.
Tom sneaks into Peter’s room and finds him tied to the bed with knotted neckties. At his side, pants down: Uncle Frank. He smashes Frank over the head with Peter’s keyboard until he draws blood and falls to the floor, mouth open. He tears up the floppy discs for Hell.
Hell DID mean something, after all. Frank was Eagery: he had molested Tom as a child, while his mother was in the kitchen making breakfast. The call Frank had been avoiding was his local police department: he was on the run from the molestation office.
In the end, Hell is different. Tom is back in the house with Maureen and Peter, but they can’t hear him: he’s a zombie. He watches TV, or wanders, or stands in Peter’s doorway, unable to meet his eye, watching him play Hell over his shoulder.
Fantastic set up. Tom’s personal Hell route is given in episodes, one scene to the next; between these episodes we get looks at the culture of resurrection and soul migration, a modern development. It’s very effective: rather than front-loading or back-loading a story with information Lethem intersperses it throughout the piece, with the Hell/nightmare sequences running as an ongoing narrative and continued action.
Plus, we get this first-person, warped vision of Hell. How COOL (if macabre) is THAT? I find dreams to be compelling reading material; nightmares even more so, and one scarcely gets more nightmarish than Hell.
One artistic choice I find interesting but don’t completely understand/appreciate (and therefore question): the segments go in chronological order, 1-20, except for the very last one, which is marked ‘6’. It’s the second ‘6’. If it were to replace the first, it would come right after the segment about Tom getting upset at his first therapy meeting: where he stormed away, convinced that Hell didn’t mean anything; that it wasn’t symbolic; that it just was. I suppose there might be some poetic full-circleness to that, but I don’t feel it’s strong enough to merit the outlier.
But overall, the telling and especially the end of this story are masterful. It’s rare to me for a short story to feel so developed and yet so self-contained at the same time. If I ever venture to write a short story of this length, or else a dream/nightmare-driven piece whose reality rubs up against/blurs with the dreamlike I will definitely return to this piece.
tableau: a picture, painting; group of motionless figures representing a scene from a story
ineffectual: not producing the desired effect
contingent: subject to chance