July 8, 2013

"All Ahead of Them"

By Tobias Wolff
~3700 words

A man discovers his new wife is a pathological liar.

Bud, whose real name is Thomas, is on his honeymoon with his wife Arden, whose real name is Nedra (Arden spelled backwards). Arden has a habit of inventing excuses to explain why she's perpetually late, and Bud has always explained it to himself as a sort of unspoken agreement, "that she could spin transparent yarns and he would indulge her, would even be amused by their transparency." But a phone call from his brother at the beginning of the story reveals that the problem is much more disturbing, and he spends the remainder of the narrative trying to figure out how to handle the revelation before Arden returns (of course she's late).

This is a story all about intriguing characters. Let's begin with Arden. She rips off her own bridesmaids for $250 each. She neglects to leave a tip for a waitress and then blames it on Bud. She hides her real name from close friends. And of course she can't seem to tell her husband the truth about anything. Which brings us to Bud. Sexually dysfunctional with his wife, he compares her smile to his mother's (who tells Bud about a recurrent dream of hers in which she embraces a strange man) and has a creepy attraction to a portrait of Arden's grandmother (a marijuana dealer who hanged herself in prison—the Nedra that Arden doesn't want to be named after):
In fact, she looked sort of Republican, in the way of his own grandmother and his aunts and their friends, a type he'd always been attracted to—women who smoked and drank cocktails and wore glittering rings and perfume and mink coats, which he liked to hang up for them, stroking the fur that somehow brought in the cold on winter nights.
But Bud's biggest problem is that he covers up Arden's lying to others and refuses to confront her about it. He can't even bear the thought of her knowing he knows: "She would never forgive him for knowing." He's apparently decided that he can't risk losing her because she broke off her engagement to a wealthy art dealer in order to marry Bud. It probably also helps that she doesn't complain about Bud's sexual dysfunction (though he's a little disconcerted by her remark that those things happen to men "all the time").

Both Arden and Bud, it turns out, have a serious problem with the truth, and their relationship is founded on lies. How fitting that neither of them even goes by their real name.

This brief story really sneaks up on you. You start out thinking it's going to be about Arden and her lying, and you wonder a bit about the stakes, which seem pretty low, maybe even humorous. But then it takes a serious turn, and you realize the stakes are much higher, having to do with Bud's enabling of his wife's behavior. Bud, in fact, is the only character to appear in the present timeframe (Arden shows up in backstory only). While that might normally be a problem, it works perfectly in a story about the idea a man has crafted of his wife.

My main quibble is with the mother's dream, which seems a bit shoehorned in and then, at the end, rather forced when Bud makes the comparison to Arden's smile. Actually, it seems more appropriate to compare Bud himself to his mother's role in the dream, as he no longer recognizes the woman he has married but is prepared to embrace her anyway. Perhaps the confusion is intentional, but it didn't work for me. Finally, the language of the story is decent but not exceptional.

"All Ahead of Them" is a sobering tale of co-dependency that gets high marks for its compelling, well-wrought characters.


No comments:

Post a Comment