I leave the bike and walk down the pier with the picture of Mother in my secret pocket. The white paint on the pier is peeling off and underneath the wood is old. I don't like how the peeling paint looks like fish scales flaking off. Too many fish scales. I want to stop and touch where the paint is peeling but I don't. I know what to do.Through Sebby's observations (“Too many fish scales....”), we feel the world's imperfection and degradation. Through his actions (“I kiss Mother's forehead and look at her laughing face for a long time....I drop the picture into the water...”), we touch the love not just of the child, but of the mother, too. Through his sensations (“The cold feels like burning and growing,...”), we know his vulnerabilities and limitations, and also our own. The mood of the story is at once magical and mercilessly real, and through it all, the voice never wavers.
At the end of the pier, I take the picture of Mother out of my pocket. I kiss Mother's forehead and look at her laughing face for a long time.
Then I drop the picture into the water and watch it float. I wait for it to start sinking. It's supposed to sink down the way Mother's pink soap bird sank down when she dropped it in the water, but the picture keeps floating. I lie on my stomach and reach down. I touch the water with just one finger to test how it feels. The cold feels like burning and growing, like it's making my finger stretch out bigger and bigger. Then with my whole hand, I push the picture of Mother under. I hold the picture down and look at Mother's face underwater. Her face flickers like a light, on and off. I pull my hand out and it feels heavy, like it's not mine. Mother's picture stays underwater.
I stand up with my hand hanging down heaving and I watch the picture underwater. I'm waiting for Mother's picture to make me jump. The Mother's face flickers dark and I jump in to save her.
I asked Brinkman about this during the Q&A after the reading, pointing out that this inhabiting of the child’s voice is something she does amazingly well, and asking her where this comes from, if there are influences, or study or research that she does, or if it's just natural (this time, I think, actually verbalizing the threat to slit my wrists on that last one). In response, she pointed us to two influences. First, she said one of the books she read and re-read when she was young was Joyce’s The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, the early chapters in particular. Her general praise for Joyce reminded me immediately of “The Sisters” and “Araby” in Dubliners, and “The Drunkard,” all of which feature young protagonists facing new and daunting realities in a cruel world. Second, Brinkman credited the Polish writer Bruno Schulz, of whom she said she was an avid reader. She said that though she doesn't write anything like Schulz, his ability to express the larger story through his young characters was one of the things she really loved about his work. At the autograph table, Andrew Sean Greer seconded this recommendation, and I scurried off to grab a copy of the Penguin Classics edition of Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories, which has a Foreword by Jonathan Safran Foer.
All in all, an excellent set of pointers and jogs to the memory to get me back to my struggling eleven-year-old...reading group beware!