Cincinnati is in the midst of its sixteenth coldest stretch on record. Each day is somehow icier than the last, each parking space a bigger snow mountain, each small dog more reluctant to go outside, no matter how plaintively nature calls. In such conditions, we at the mag kvetch a lot. We spit. We claw. We languish. Everyone, that is, except volunteer Bess Winter, who appears to be thriving. She walks into the office dressed like the world’s smallest fashion model, works silently and efficiently at her desk, and neglects to mention that she has a story out in the new Indiana Review until the issue shows up in the mail. In other words, Winter is quietly taking over the world. Fortunately for us, she wields her power gracefully, taking time away from her reign to share some thoughts on Daniel Hoyt’s “Here I Am”:
Bess Winter: It is a truth universally acknowledged that short stories told in two parts are about questions of dying.
At least, I’m starting to think so.
Take, for instance, Daniel A. Hoyt’s “Here I Am,” published in Cincinnati Review issue 10.2, and slap it down beside Tobias Wolff’s much-anthologized two-part story “A Bullet to the Brain.” Both deal with the tricky calculus of a man’s last moments. Both attempt to divide moments before and after death—though the line blurs. In “A Bullet to the Brain” we meet Anders, a professional critic “known for the weary, elegant savagery with which he dispatched almost everything he reviewed,” as he critiques a bank robber whose response is, well, a bullet to the brain. In “Here I Am,” we meet John, manager of a Burger King franchise and victim of a random beheading: “Two men in suits held John down, face pressed to the floor. He could see an onion ring that had fallen out of someone’s paper box, and then a third person smashed the ax down on his neck.”
“A Bullet to the Brain” is one of my favorite stories because of the elegance with which Wolff pares Anders down to his life’s most satisfying moment, in the milliseconds before the bullet exits his brain “dragging its comet’s tail of memory and hope and talent and love into the marble hall of commerce.” If Wolff’s story is a close analysis of the comet, “Here I Am,” a story that questions the notion of death (emotional and spiritual), is a careful study of its tail: memories relived, hopes dashed, talent perhaps not used to its full potential. Ostensibly, John’s death-by-beheading happens, in an equally public commercial space, in the story’s first paragraph. We stick with John for another several pages as his body gropes for its head, picks it up, smokes a cigarette, tries to walk home with it tucked under its arm. As it tires. As the head grows heavy. As the body leaves the head behind to a fate that may or may not be an afterlife, but certainly isn’t what John expects. The farther his body strays from his head, the closer he’s forced to confront the puzzling contents of that head. The result is a darkly humorous exploration of grief, a fitting companion piece to “A Bullet to the Brain,” and a startlingly on-trend depiction of an animated corpse.