Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 582
The story begins in Los Angeles, where the protagonist, Nick, who grew up with Benton in New England, now works in the recording industry. When Benton, with his girlfriend Olivia, flies to Los Angeles to sell his latest batch of paintings to a wealthy, eccentric patron, he calls on his old friend Nick for moral support. Nick has had trouble adjusting to the deals, drugs, and flamboyance of Southern California, but Olivia, who is constantly experimenting with drugs, seems at home with the decadent Hollywood scene. At the news that Benton’s younger brother Wesley has drowned in a boating accident, the three fly home, too late for the funeral but fortunate to find a flight at all so close to Thanksgiving.
They join what remains of Benton’s family (his mother Ena, his former wife Elizabeth, his son Jason, and his Uncle Cal), who are assembled at the dead Wesley’s house in the Connecticut countryside where Wesley had recently moved, it has been speculated, either to return to simplicity or to assuage some sort of guilt Ena has caused. Nick, too, finds rural New England serene and natural, a return to simplicity and tradition, with pumpkins, apple orchards, and picturesque graveyards, a place where “snow” means not cocaine but the real thing; he wishes he could live there again. The family reunion promises to be anything but peaceful, for when the three arrive from the West Coast, the other family members have already begun taking Wesley’s belongings, and they rush to confess, exposing their own self-interests. Between the traditional Elizabeth and Olivia, who is often under the influence of drugs, the atmosphere is understandably charged, a situation not helped by Olivia’s tendency to monopolize the bathtub.
Benton’s mother entertains an impossible fantasy, that her family will gather harmoniously in front of the fireplace, but she cannot manage to get everyone together at the same time. Perhaps to compensate, she insists that they wait for Hanley Paulson to deliver a load of firewood; although he charges too much, he has always delivered her wood in the past and she finds that she “can always count on Hanley.” Her brother-in-law and secret admirer, Cal, bickers with her whenever he is not worrying about his health or the vegetarian foibles of his interior decorator. The child Jason seems determined to have his divorced parents reconciled.
Wandering among these miniature dramas, taking everything in but not really involved emotionally in anything (not even in the brief sexual interlude with Elizabeth), Nick is free to observe the family as a whole and to recall Wesley’s influence. Wesley, a photographer, had once taken a picture of Nick’s hands that transformed them into something strange, soft, and priestlike; Nick contemplates Wesley’s death as a strange still life.
When the firewood finally arrives, not Hanley but his surly son delivers it; he demands extra compensation to stack it, then carries off most of Wesley’s pumpkins. Toward the end of their time together, the family joins around the table to eat Ena’s large dinner, which is supposed to replace the Thanksgiving dinner she never prepared, but she cannot make pumpkin pie because, she claims, all the pumpkins are gone. During the meal, the tension that has been smoldering finally flares up, sending young Jason from the table in tears. Benton puts Jason to bed with a story about evolution, in which dinosaurs turn into deer but remember their change with sadness.
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