April 15, 2013

"The Night of the Satellite"

By T. Coraghessan Boyle
~6500 words

A man ensnared in a rapidly escalating lovers' feud is struck by a chunk of space debris.

The narrator, Paul, gets into it with his girlfriend when, on the way to meet some friends, she wants to intervene in a spat between an unknown couple on a rural country road. Mallory's anger at Paul's refusal to help and his resentment at her anger boil over in a bar that night and, afterwards, in an empty field at 3 in the morning. In the middle of a heated argument, Paul is struck on the shoulder by a piece of metal mesh that he believes to have come from a decommissioned weather satellite. Before he can verify his theory, however, Mallory throws the scrap away, further poisoning their relationship.

This story has many admirable qualities. The characters are richly developed, from Paul and Mallory to the friends they are visiting to the unidentified feuding couple (who return for a delicious final scene involving a wobbly ice cream cone). The plot, despite its ridiculously improbable premise, unfolds with impeccable ease—and I haven't even mentioned the part about the dog and sheep fight—sucking us into the pettiness of the argument between the main characters and forcing us, against our better judgment, to side with the narrator. Who doesn't sympathize with Paul when his little piece of space junk gets tossed before he's able to send it to the jet propulsion laboratory for testing? The sheer absurdity of the situation is matched only by how real it all feels.

The best part of the story, however, is the extraordinary visual imagery, which begins almost immediately, with the end of the opening paragraph:
I could smell the nighttime stink of the river. I looked up and watched the sky expand overhead and then shrink down to fit me like a safety helmet. A truck went blatting by on the interstate, and then it was silent, but for the mosquitoes singing their blood song, while the rest of the insect world screeched either in protest or accord, I couldn’t tell which, thrumming and thrumming, until the night felt as if it were going to burst open and leave us shattered in the grass.
And so it goes throughout. In the drive to the friends' house, "[g]rasshoppers flung themselves against the windshield like yellow hail." The friends dance with "their arms flashing white and Anneliese's flag of hair draining all the color out of the room." A thunderstorm rolls in "under a sky the color of bruised flesh." Even the quotidian becomes extraordinary with perfectly metaphors: "Next thing I was out the door, out on the street, fuming, the sun still glaring overhead, everything before me looking as ordinary as dishwater."

I do have a few quibbles with the storytelling. Early on the narrator mentions an air-conditioner, specifying that it was "doing its job." At the end, though, he says that "we sat around and sweated and tried to avoid contact as much as possible," alluding only to a fan. What happened to the AC? In the bar scene, he says that "I went to the bar instead and ordered a spritzer for Mallory and a rum-and-Coke for myself"; but in the next paragraph, which is narrated as if it were sequential to the first, he repeats his drink order. Finally, a reference toward the end, about space debris colliding "in two wide bands of low Earth orbit, at six hundred and twenty and at nine hundred and thirty miles up," is a bit confusing. I get the general idea, but the specificity of the image throws me off (and how can the debris collide in orbits so far apart?). It wouldn't normally be much of an issue, but it comes at an important moment, as the narrator is tying together the story's symbolic threads.

These quibbles—the storytelling equivalent of a few typos—do little to detract from the overall impact of "The Night of the Satellite," which draws top honors for its well-crafted characters, quirky but compelling plot, and exceptional language.


Reader poll: I found "The Night of the Satellite" to be ___.

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