31 Days of Stories 2012, Day 19: “The Houdini” by Elaine McCluskey
From Valery the Great
Competitiveness is at the heart of Elaine McCluskey’s story “The Houdini,” about a small-town swim team that travels from Myrtle, Nova Scotia (“a minor town with modest expectations”), to Ontario to participate in an ill-fated out-of-province meet.
The Myrtle Otters Swim Team – whose acronym is fodder for much comedy – is composed of a rag-tag group of misfit young people suffering every complaint imaginable, from low self-esteem to debilitating physical ailments: “We had forty swimmers, including twelve asthmatics, four kids with peanut allergies, and two boys who claimed, thought they may have been lying, that they were legally blind.” The one bona fide star on the team, the fifteen-year-old hunk improbably named Nathan Spearwater, is desired by all the girls on account of his “dreamy eyes and abs.” Nathan has hair “hardened like points of meringue” from the chlorine in the local pool, “which, in our minds, gave him a dangerous, yet vulnerable, air.” Nathan eventually decamps the swim team to play rugby, a sport at which he also excels, much to the consternation of his erstwhile swimmers: “When Nathan didn’t come back, but did become a rugby star, we comforted ourselves with cheap insults. ‘Anyone can play rugby,’ we decided. ‘It’s a goon sport.’ ”
The “cheap insults” are a clear cover for inadequacy on the part of the remaining swim team members, who hold no illusions about their own relative abilities. Some of the team members even revel in their vulnerabilities, flaunting and mythologizing them. Drew, a large young man who can’t dive off the blocks because his swimsuit will come off (“They don’t put drawstrings in Speedos that large”), boasts to Rita, the story’s narrator, about the inaccuracy of rumours that he has had surgery to correct a hernia: “It was a hydrocele, which is an abnormal swelling of the scrotum.”
The impulse to aggrandize everything is a function of living in Myrtle, a town that has no import to speak of. The town’s persistent ordinariness requires an almost wilful act of revisionism on the part of its citizens, who are desperate to rise above a pervasive sense of underachievement:
[T]he weekly newspaper covered our every undertaking: meets, bottle drives, Swim-A-Thons. One week earlier, a reporter had interviewed Drew, who boasted, without a hint of self-consciousness, “I like to play mind games in distance races,” and the reporter, without a whiff of irony, printed it. When the story appeared, Drew’s mother looked so proud of her son that I thought she might cry. Swim team was my mother’s idea. There was no reason, declared Ethna, with a tenacious optimism that bordered on madness, that I could not become the best in the province or maybe the world.
Ethna’s optimism bordering on madness is simply one manifestation of the almost pathological need for recognition that infects the denizens of Myrtle. Roger, the husband of Ethna’s sister, Irene, is a denturist who boasts wildly about the need to hire an additional assistant for his practice: “I need someone to handle the overflow,” he brags, with a smile that is “threatening and ugly as a stump fence.” Pammy, the Otters’ swim coach, is convinced the team will not improve unless they attend “big meets” in Ontario and Quebec, “something she had earlier dismissed as a waste of money.” She enrolls her kids in a skills class with a big-city trainer named Beluga, whose “pool was located in a neighbourhood of neck tattoos and knives.” Georgina Vogel, a teenager from a troubled family, has “a lascivious side” and “often posed with her mouth half-open, tongue suggestively exposed like in a porno movie.”
All of these characters are engaged in a vain attempt to rise above their circumstances; the sense of competition they succumb to becomes a kind of grinding torture for the people who feel the weight of the town’s expectations bearing down upon them but are unable to acquit themselves satisfactorily. The townspeople manage to puff themselves up with empty rhetoric about how grand they all are, but there is an equally virulent sense of satisfaction at witnessing others fail. “It wasn’t just relief,” Rita thinks of the feelings in the air after the disastrous Ontario swim meet. “It was the same schadenfreude we had felt when Drew dove off the blocks and his suit fell down; the same joy I had seen on Irene’s face, when she realized, long before Ethna, that I was hopeless.”
The word “schadenfreude” literally means “pleasure derived from another’s misfortune”: the citizens of Myrtle take pleasure in the shortcomings of their neighbours because it is easier, and much less painful, than focusing on their own.