A Stranger in This World, Kevin Canty’s first book of short stories, presents characters who attempt to free themselves from one constraint or another, including how they feel or whom they are with. In each story, images often focus critical aspects of the plot.
The first story of A Stranger in This World, “King of the Elephants,” and the last, the title story, bracket the collection with the sense of entrapment that arises in one form or another in the other stories. “King of the Elephants” features a boy trapped by his sense of responsibility to a father who drinks too much and a mother who is out of her mind. During the story, Raymond drives his father from Florida to Washington, D.C., to visit his mother Ellen in a mental hospital. On the way, he comes close to abandoning his father on the road, but in the end he cannot break the habit of support that he is used to giving his parents. As the headlights of trucks make his “shadow circle around [him]” beside the road, Raymond circles about inside himself like an animal in a cage.
Candy, the main character of “A Stranger in This World,” is trapped by her inability to forget her sex life with her dead husband Greg. He was a fighter pilot in the United States Air Force, and Candy was aroused by his love of risk. She senses how foolish her nostalgia is, but this does not restrain her from desiring Jim Madison, her boyfriend Walter’s older brother, because he reminds her of Greg. Unlike Raymond in “King of the Elephants,” who is a teenager, Candy is thirty-four, old enough to gain her freedom by doing something about her weakness. When Jim tries to rape her, she steals his pants and convertible and drives into her future, no longer the parasite of someone else’s taste for risk.
Various images clarify the shallowness and constraint that Candy must contend with, the need she wishes to project, and her sexual identity. Walter’s family house, for example, seems to Candy “about an inch thick” and “like part of a Barbie set, new, cheap and pink”; Walter and Jim’s mother herself is like a Barbie doll, allowing no complexity or untidiness whatsoever in her life. The image for what Candy wants is her singing. When she sings “Amazing Grace” to Walter and Jim, she is expressing her need to escape from her childishness, and when she sings the blues song “Lover Man,” she is expressing her need for the sex that her childishness thrives on. In the beginning of the story, Candy remembers feeling like a penis when she wanted to have sex with Greg, and at the end of the story Jim’s erect penis is “ridiculous” to her, reminding her of “a crooked mushroom.” Candy, in short, has progressed from identifying herself with a man she wants to separating herself from a man who wants her.
Judy MacGregor in “Pretty Judy” wants sex because she is retarded; that is, the physicality of sex represents security to her. Nineteen or twenty and big, she traps her fifteen-year-old lover Paul, who knows neither what to do with her beyond sex nor how to escape from her. The zoo that Paul brings Judy to stands for this confinement; more than this, Judy “was . . . inside him like a child, . . . feeding on his blood.” His experience with Judy forces Paul to see that sex makes him blind to his own interests.
Like Candy in “A Stranger in This World,” Tina in “The Victim” depends on a man to define herself; she wants “to fill the blank, amorphous mass of herself,” not through her own actions but through someone else’s. Yet just as she is a nonentity to the people she deals with on the telephone in her job, she is a one-dimensional partner to her boyfriend Bobby—much like the paper bag he runs over at the end of the story. It is not until she and Bobby are held at gunpoint by a drunk who wants oral sex from them that she begins to take command of her life, killing the drunk with his own gun (the symbol of his virility) in his upended trailer (the symbol of his demented life). Indeed, “she feels herself turning into a thing she hasn’t been before”; she is becoming the source of her own feelings.
The narrator’s lover Margaret in “Junk” helps to free herself and her children from poverty by buying discarded toasters and blenders at yard sales, fixing them, then selling them for a profit at swap meets. In effect, she takes the shabbiness of the world and transforms it to her advantage. The narrator, on the other hand, cannot escape his own shabbiness; he is addicted to drugs, drink, and sex with his estranged wife Dorothy. When he rebels against his weakness, all he does is nearly kill Margaret and himself in a car crash, and all he salvages is a nightmare about the event.
In “Moonbeams and Aspirin,” Lockhart and another Margaret travel to a Florida island to save their marriage or escape from it. Distracted by tourists and out of sync with one another, they end up in a bar, bemused by a talkative blind man, Wilson Petie. Petie wants to drive a car, and since Lockhart and Margaret have nothing better to do, they let him drive the one they have rented. This serves to dramatize...
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