31 Days of Stories 2009. Day 1: “Man with the Axe” by Terry Griggs

August 1, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

From Quickening.

Quick9781897231579 web“One spring Hooligan came home with a wooden leg in his mouth.” The opening line of Terry Griggs’s story “Man with the Axe” exposes an eccentric authorial sensibility, one that has an undeniable affinity for the macabre. At the same time, it serves as a sly allusion to one of the great short-story writers of all time, Flannery O’Connor, an author to whom Griggs has been compared.

In one of O’Connor’s most famous stories, “Good Country People,” a simple country girl has her wooden leg stolen by a malevolent Bible salesman. The leg in “Man with the Axe” is carried not by a Bible salesman, but by a dog. Like Manley Pointer in O’Connor’s story, however, Hooligan is an interloper, a stray that appeared one day “sniffing around” the farm where Erie and her brother, Erling, live. “He sat on their doorstep the better part of three days, affably tenacious as a salesman, until Erie finally relented and let him in.” (My emphasis.)

The connection can hardly be accidental. In the foreword to the new edition of Quickening, Griggs allows that some of the stories in her collection “host other stories in their innards.” In the case of “Man with the Axe,” Griggs is not after a simple rewriting of O’Connor’s story; indeed, in both subject and approach, Griggs is a very different writer. Instead, the allusion draws attention to a thematic concern that is central to both stories: Hulga Hopewell in “Good Country People” and Erie in “Man with the Axe” are both missing something. Hulga, of course, is literally missing her leg, but the leg is also explicitly compared to her soul: “No one ever touched it but her. She took care of it as someone else would his soul, in private and almost with her own eyes turned away.” Erie in “Man with the Axe” could also be said to have lost a part of her soul, mourning as she does over the drowning death of Jimmy Brooke, “the boy who courted her for two years before marrying the lake.”

If Manley Pointer jars the atheistic philosophy Ph.D. out of her worldly stupor by making off with her leg, Hooligan does something similar by bestowing his gift upon Erie. In Griggs’s story, the leg becomes the focal point for the Blue Lake community to engage in all manner of wild speculation as to its provenance. Erie, an aspiring writer who keeps her manuscripts hidden in her underwear drawer, finds that the leg “prick[s] her imagination,” and she begins to indulge in her own fantasy about the leg’s erstwhile owner:

Someone must have been attached to it at one time, a husband or a sweetheart. A pirate, God knows. How did a person lose such a thing, anyway? Easy enough, Erie supposed. You get involved in a barroom brawl. Some tough gets his hands on it, then uses it as a pestle to pulverize glass and flesh.

Erling, the rationalist who writes a weekly column for the local paper, eventually comes up with a much more prosaic explanation for where the leg came from, but Erie’s imagination has been “pricked,” and she imagines Jimmy, whom she was unable to save from the lake, appearing to her. She picks up a sheet of paper “and in the splashing wavering firelight … she begins to write.” She decides that her words “would have to be quick and strong as hands” to rescue Jimmy in the way that she was physically unable to.

In the end, then, Griggs’s story is about storytelling, about the ways in which we transform experience – be it the heartwrenching loss of a young love, or the mysterious appearance of a wooden leg – into fiction, and thereby attempt to wrench some understanding from what may in the final analysis be unfathomable.

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