by Jennifer Egan, The Best American Short Stories, 2010, p 63
A safari is interrupted in this well-told tale of family and fear.
Rolph and Charlie are joining their father, his girlfriend, and several of his associates on a safari in Africa. The group is connected by a set of strange dynamics that include professional relationships, tenuous romantic ties and semi-rebellious familial attitudes. All is well until an idiotic minor character is attacked by a lion, disrupting more than just a budding illicit affair between Mindy, the girlfriend of Rolph and Charlie’s father, and the tight-lipped tour guide, named Albert. The event is the kind that shakes loose all the fears and consternations that are welled up in each of the characters. Rolph’s eleven-year-old infatuation with Mindy seethes into anger when he thinks she’s just being mean to Albert (in fact, she’s shaken by her sudden attraction to him). Charlie’s ongoing desire for her father’s attention slips into burgeoning sexuality. And when Lou, the father, later discovers Mindy’s slight unfaithfulness, his desire for her turns from a passing fling to a wrathful competition to “keep” her. Group dynamics in “Safari” swell to a point far beyond the action, and when the two most innocent lives here (Rolph and Charlie) collapse into a suicide and a drug addiction, you feel that the few weeks most represented in “Safari” held the turning point for the tragedies that later befall, but you may not be able to say what, specifically, happened.
The greatest part of this story is Egan’s ability to formulate compelling relationships and maintain several individual identities through a shifting, omniscient point of view. With astute clarity, Egan’s narrative builds a complex web of relationships and confidences that are forged and broken in the span of the story. See in the first paragraph how Egan weaves the group’s ties.
“Remember, Charlie? In Hawaii? When we went to the beach at night and it started to rain?” Rolph is talking to his older sister, Charlene, who despises her real name. But because they’re crouched around a bonfire with the other people on the safari, and because Rolph doesn’t speak up all that often, and because their father, Lou, sitting behind them on a camp chair, is a record producer whose personal life is of general interest, those near enough to hear are listening closely. “Remember? How Mom and Dad stayed at the table for one more drink—”
The lucidity with which this story opens establishes a number of important themes and conflicts. “Remember?” Rolph, who is only eleven, asks. The repetition of the word “remember” at the end of the paragraph ossifies his nostalgia for what their family unit used to be. The recipient of the question, Charlie, is concerned about something else. The fact that she “despises her real name,” opting instead for the more traditionally masculine version, shows that her identity is her primary concern. And their father Lou, who is the center of the group’s attention, makes his response to Rolph’s question (“Impossible,” he interrupts), deepening the meaning of Rolph’s remembrances.
Charlie’s concern is of her father and his new relationship, in which he is literally “intertwined” with a younger woman named Mindy. The set up here is Charlie’s deepening desire for affection or at least attention from her increasingly distant father. One may argue that her and Rolph’s desires are related. In fact, Charlie’s addition “You were married to Mom on that trip” suggests this is so.
Lou’s charm, however, retains the affection of the other members of the group, which include his professional acquaintances and a pair of elderly bird-watching ladies:
Lou is one of those men whose restless charm has generated a contrail of personal upheaval that is practically visible behind him: two failed marriages and two more kids back home in L.A., who were too young to bring on this three-week safari.
Lou’s charm, in other words, works on everyone but those closest to him. But, in another of Egan’s flashes of deep human knowledge, it is revealed that he is still humanly connected to his son:
If he were an introspective man, he would have understood years ago that his son is the one person in the world who has the power to soothe him. And that, although he expects Rolph to resemble him, what he most enjoys in his son is the many ways in which he is different: quiet, reflective, attuned to the natural world and the pain of others.
It seems Mindy is the latest casualty in Lou’s “contrail of personal upheaval,” and her alliances are already fading. The group’s Hemingway-esque guide Albert becomes a locus of her sexual attraction when they are all on a trip into the bush in search of animals. When they stop to watch a pride of lions, Albert and Mindy have a moment of semi-solitude.
“You’re driving me crazy,” Albert says, very softly. The sound seems to travel out his window and back in through Mindy’s, like one of those whispering tubes. “You must know that.”
“I didn’t,” she murmurs back.
“Well, you are.”
“My hands are tied.”
She smiles. “Please. An interlude.”
“Grad school. Berkeley.”
The temerity of Albert’s sexualized and sudden admission, paired with the formality of “You must know that,” exudes complexity of both character and their difficult situation. Mindy’s simple “I didn’t” reveals her reticence without rejecting Albert’s charms outright, and her casual “My hands are tied” establishes her plausible deniability if they are caught. “Forever?” Albert asks, and it becomes astoundingly apparent that he is a passionate man, willing to wait. But this derring-do is parried by Mindy’s suggestion that her relationship with Lou is only an “interlude.” The brilliant exchange ends with a statement of their “irreconcilable locations”: he in Africa and she in California.
Their exchange is interrupted by a similarly daring display of bravado. Chronos has slipped out of the jeep and begun lurking among the lions. Ultimately, he is attacked, but Albert saves the day by shooting the lion. The subtle parallel here is that Chronos, who will survive, but with stories and scars, has ridden the line that they are all trying to get close to. Their competing notes of animal sightings, Albert and Mindy’s passion, Rolph’s nostalgia, and Charlie’s desire for affection are all displays of what these characters want life to be. They want meaningful, passionate relationships, excitement, they want to live.
As the point of view shifts to Rolph, we watch as he, discomforted by the mirth of excitement after the attack, goes up to his room with Mindy, in whom he finds comfort. On the way they meet Albert, and Rolph invites him to his room. What unfolds is a deliciously awkward scene in which the two adults, confused about their earlier conversation, stiffly navigate Rolph’s attempts at making everyone comfortable.
As the three of them ascend the stairs, Rolph feels an odd pressure to make conversation. “Is your room up here, too?” he asks.
“Down the hall,” Albert says. “Room 3.”
Mindy unlocks the door too Rolph’s room and steps in, leaving Albert in the hall. Rolph is suddenly angry with her.
“Want to see my room?” he asks Albert. “Mine and Charlie’s?”
Mindy emits a single syllable of laughter—the way his mother laughs when things have annoyed her to the point of absurdity. Albert steps into his room. It’s plain, with wooden furniture and dusty flowered curtains, but after ten nights in tents it feels lavish.
“Very nice,” Albert says. Mindy crosses her arms and stares out the window. There is a feeling in the room that Rolph can’t identify. He’s angry with mindy and thinks Alert must be, too. Women are crazy.
The pressure Rolph feels is an element of his father’s own misogynistic qualities (echoed by the final “Women are crazy”) that Rolph will continue to struggle with. The anger he feels is both a parallel to his father’s later anger (when he finds out about this exchange) and a subconscious fear that he will lose her, as he has lost his mother before her.
In the story’s penultimate scene, Rolph and his father are spear fishing. Rolph tells Lou about Mindy’s rudeness to Albert, but Lou recognizes the attraction and responds, “Women are cunts.” But the boy doesn’t parrot this, as he has before.
Rolph gapes at him. His father is angry, a muscle jumping in his jaw, and without warning Rolph is angry, too: assailed by a deep, sickening rage that stirs in him very occasionally—most often when he and Charlie come back from a riotous weekend around their father’s pool, rock stars jamming on the roof, guacamole and big pots of chili, to find their mother alone in her bungalow, drinking peppermint tea. Rage at this man who casts everyone aside.
For Rolph, this fear has a chance at fading in the final scene, in an open-air disco. His sister asks him to dance with her, and the boy, who has until now been quite self-conscious, agrees.
She takes hold of his hands. As they move together, Rolph feels his self-consciousness miraculously fade, as if he were growing up right there on the dance floor, becoming a boy who dances with girls like his sister.
In a series of future-tense descriptions, Egan reveals what will happen to our central characters: Mindy and Lou will marry, though she will periodically think of Albert and think “longingly of this rip to Africa as the last perfect moment of her life.” Charlie will join a cult with a charismatic leader (who is like her father, perhaps). Rolph and Lou will stop speaking, and eventually Rolph will commit suicide. Charlie will return to her given name—Charlene—“unlatching herself forever from the girl who danced with her brother in Africa.” She will want to name her son Rolph.
With powerful dialogue and prose, as well as supremely complex characters, Egan’s ability is apparent in this story, which so far strikes me as the best in the 2010 collection.