Happy Trails to You
Julie Hecht’s collection of seven short stories under the ironic title Happy Trails to You takes us into the consciousness of a representative contemporary type: the deeply dissatisfied, slightly neurotic, politically liberal (and politically correct) professional woman who finds contemporary American life to be bewildering, frightening, and alienating. The volume’s title, which is also the title of the last story in the collection, evokes a very different United States, the optimistic 1950’s, when Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, one of the country’s happily married chirpy television couples, could rescue those in distress without so much as smudging their Western costumes. Each episode ended with the sappy song, “Happy trails to you, until we meet again. . . . Keep smiling until then.”
These are hardly stories in a traditional sense. There is never a plot, and seldom is there even a narrative line. Rather, the stories tend to record the narrator’s quirky, sometimes sad, sometimes humorous responses to the people and the world around her. One would not call the method stream of consciousness, at least not in the sense of James Joyce or Virginia Woolf. The reader is privy to the narrator’s interior monologue, and she is a kind of contemporary female Hamlet, continually soliloquizing on the fact that “the time is out of joint.”
The title of the first story, “Over There,” evokes another song, this one from World War I. The world the narrator enters when she visits her elderly, hard-of-hearing neighbor at Christmastime is nearly as foreign as the one British troops encountered in the trenches in 1914. As a nondrinking vegan and non-Christian, she is surrounded by heavy-drinking, ham-eating revelers who find her as exotic as she finds them offensive. Her attempt at a gift is some slices of over-baked cranberry bread. Oddly, considering the circumstances, she finds herself wishing she had a family. A second visit finds the old woman alone with her decrepit dog and overweight cat, but the narrator is equally out of place, constantly wanting to point out the need for recycling or the dangers of global warming. As she is about to leave, the sight of the old woman eating dinner evokes memories of her father, living out his last years alone.
The reader may find it difficult at this stage to know how to take the narrator. Should the reader sympathize with her loneliness and rigorous habits, values, and attitudes, or is she a pathetic figure, substituting political correctness, recycling, and vegetarianism for family, friends, and a significant inner life? In the following six stories, the reader will likely develop a complicated relationship with this pained, struggling woman.
“Being and Nothingness” finds the narrator spending far too much time watching news programs and fretting over President Bill Clinton and the Monica Lewinsky affair. Her concerns are partly political, partly personal, and partly for the state of the country. Her reference points are Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau, who represent for her closeness to nature, integrity, and, one suspects, a simpler world, where one could ignore the newspapers of the day and focus on building an inner life, This is something the narrator struggles to do, but she cannot because of the media, her absent psychiatrist, and the general gloom in the country. “Thoreau would have the mind feed upon the works of nature, and not trouble itself about the news,” she says. At the instigation of her yoga teacher, she visits the Nantucket Atheneum Library, where Emerson and Thoreau once spoke. It provides some relief: “Every thought which passes through the mind helps to wear and tear it,” she quotes, and then she adds, “I had picked up some of the vibes.”
What is reflected here, among other things, is a cluttered mind, driven anxious by information overload, a distaste for conservative Republicans, and perhaps (as noted above) the absence of support from husband, friends, or professionals. Tiny acts of kindness, like a gift of a small tin box, are rare events in an otherwise indifferent world.
“A Little Present on This Dark November Day” takes place during the summer before and the few days after the George W. Bush-John Kerry election of 2004. As before, there is only the most slender of narrative lines, with a series of characters and incidents connected only by chronology and place. One focus is the handsome actor-waiter, whom she helps to find a natural cure for his sore throat. Another is the diner-restaurant where he works and where Kerry had previously eaten a meal, a subject of extended conversation between the narrator and the restaurant’s chefs. At the other end of the political spectrum are her encounters in another restaurant with conservative Republicans. The day after the reelection of “the Alfred E. Neuman...
(The entire section is 1992 words.)