(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Tim Gautreaux is but the latest in a long line of fine short-story writers from Louisiana which includes Ellen Gilchrist, Robert Olen Butler, Shirley Ann Grau, and Moira Crone. His milieu is the rural farm country of southern Louisiana, populated with characters who live in small towns such as Tiger Island, Gumwood, and Pine Oil. Although his people are often down on their luck financially, mostly their moral values are sound, even when they are sorely tried. Gautreaux has said he considers himself a Catholic writer in the tradition of Walker Percy, saying that “if a story does not deal with a moral question, I don’t think it’s much of a story.”

Gautreaux writes of Cajun country, about working-class men and women who come smack up against a challenge to their humaneness, and usually manage to meet it with courage and grace. Comparing him to Flannery O’Connor, critics have praised his stories as being morally complex in their depiction of human frailty and deceptively simple in their pellucid lyrical style.

“Same Place, Same Things”

The title story of Tim Gautreaux’s first collection, an anthology favorite, is about Harry Lintel, a forty-four-year-old traveling pump repairman from Missouri who has “followed the droughts” to Louisiana to find work. After finding a dead man who has been electrocuted while trying to fix his pump, Harry is then pursued by the dead man’s wife, who says she has spent her life seeing the “same place, same things.” Since Harry is the only person she ever met who can go where he wants to go, and since because of poverty she has never been more than a hundred miles from her home, she urges him to take her with him.

However, although Harry is tempted because of the woman’s good looks and seductive promise to be good to him, he is bothered by the woman’s easy dismissal of her husband and the fact that two previous husbands have died. His revelation comes when he opens the electric fuse box at the woman’s house and finds a switch wire cut into the circuit and running into the house. Then he knows that the woman switched on the current while her husband worked on the pump and murdered him. Although Harry is shaken “like a man who had just missed being in a terrible accident,” he does not report the crime, happy to leave the town and the woman behind.

The climax of the story comes when he stops at a café and finds her hidden under the tarp in his truck bed. Although she begs him to take her with him, he says significantly, “Where you want to go, I can’t take you.” The woman hits Harry over the head with a heavy wrench, snarling, “I’ve never met a man I could put up with for long. I’m glad I got shut of all of mine.” She then drives away in his truck. When he regains consciousness, Harry knows that whereas she was a woman who would never get where she wanted to go, he was always clear where he was going.

The story is an understated treatment of a man who almost makes a terrible mistake, but who finds meaning in his work. His basic contentment with the “same things” regardless of where he finds himself is contrasted with the discontent of the woman who will never find meaning regardless of the place she occupies.

“Little Frogs in a Ditch”

In his contributor’s notes to this story in The Best American Short Stories 1997, Gautreaux says he got the central idea from a radio call-in show which asked listeners to tell about the “meanest trick” they had ever played on someone. One man called in and bragged how he had caught a bunch of common roof pigeons and sold them as untrained homing pigeons complete with instructions. Gautreaux says he wondered what kind of person would do such a thing and...

(The entire section is 1546 words.)