The New Yorker Fiction Review: Breatharians (Oct. 22, 2012)

If you can move beyond the distasteful image of severed feline tails pinned and hardening on a bulletin board — and then beyond the unthinkable levels of delusion and detachment from common decency that are required for a parent to order their 12-year-old child to brandish the weapon and perform the severing – then perhaps you can begin to contemplate “Breatharians” on a more complex level.

I tried but never quite got there with Callan Wink’s twisted narrative, which isn’t a fault of Wink’s – the piece was good.

August, the child, is a farm boy, raised by once-happy parents of two disagreeing minds. His father taught his boy to follow orders and obey his elders, both in the name of an honest day’s work and the pursuit of what a “man” should be. His mother didn’t teach him not to do that, but she taught him to yearn for something more, for something more “accomplished.” In other words, Son, don’t be like your father.

*            *            *

The family has two homes on acres of farmland. One home is old and simple, the home that August’s grandfather (mother’s side) had built for his family. It was the home of a man who took great pride in meeting the needs of his family, and meeting them with his own effort, his own sweat, his own hands.

The other home was modern and multi-storied, a home that met the needs of family but also made a statement about status and personal achievement. It was built by August’s father and was a symbol of his independence, his pride. It wasn’t that the family needed the house. No, the father did. It was something to call his own, something to prove that he wouldn’t forever live off the work of his in-laws. He could make it on his own, and so he was going to make it on his own. The only thing thicker than his pride was his stubbornness.

There was a time when the family lived happily together in the bright, new home. August was younger, and it was the All-American story. Big house, land, two parents, healthy child, a dog named Skyler.

But those days were no more. Skyler had gotten himself into some antifreeze in the barn and guzzled the poison to his death. The dog was 12, and as August and his father buried Skyler in the yard, his father muttered, “As good a age as any.”

Now, as a 12-year-old, August realizes his father wasn’t necessarily saying it was as good a age as any for a dog to die. He was saying that 12 is as good a age as any for a boy to experience loss and death.

August learned about death, but it wasn’t just the death of his dog. Something inside him had died in the years since his he buried his pup. Something significant had changed.

He was now murdering cats as his mother lived alone in the old house, cooking food but not eating it, instead wafting the aromas up through her nostrils when cigarillo smoke wasn’t pouring out.

*            *            *

What August’s mother was doing was becoming a “breatharian,” reaching this odd state of mental discipline and spiritual brainwash, a state that defiantly ignores the simple the truths of biology and believes the mind can produce enough bodily fuel to power everything else.

“You can attune your mind and your body, Augie,” his mother says. “Perfectly attune them by healthy living and meditation, so that you completely lose the food requirement. I mean, it’s not just that you’re not hungry. That’s not too hard. I’m talking about getting to the point where all you have to do is breathe the air and you’re satisfied. You get full and you never have to eat.”

August’s mom will cook bacon and greasy pork chops, partly to provide the volume of smells on which her twisted theory about eating functions, but mostly because she knows her son will be coming by to check on her and there’s something motherly – regardless of age or circumstance – about sliding a plate of food across the table to your child.

When August comes by to check on his mom – who plays card and smokes Swisher Sweets to pass the time – he devours the food she has cooked and tells her what he’s been up to. He tells her about the dad, and he tells her about the chores he’s been doing. She challenges August to disobey his father, to not do the work. But Augusts defends his dad and says he doesn’t mind the work.

He says he doesn’t mind butchering cats, because he’s getting paid a dollar a tail – “school money” – and his dad is proud of him that he’s completing a grizzly job. And August takes great satisfaction in being the supplier of his father’s pride, even when he can see everything that has changed.

*            *            *

The first thing August did when he set out to kill a barn full of cats – they were tearing up the place and making it smell terrible, thus his father’s order to get rid of them – was grab a wrench.

He would walk calmly into the barn, and when one of the cats walked up to him, he’d whack it on the skull with the wrench and pull out his pocket knife to retrieve the tail. That was his plan, and it worked once, but it produced more frustration than tails.

So August got “smart” (parentheses because this is disgusting in the real world, but we all know this is fake, right kids?): He mixed bowls of milk with antifreeze – subconsciously remembering it worked on Skyler – and set out the greenish, milky death traps in the barn. It worked. August returned early the next morning to a bounty of dead cats.

He collected the tails, pinned them to the board, and left them for his father to see when he climbed out of bed.

*            *            *

You come to see everything that has changed for August in the final scene when he’s watching a mother through a window at the old house. She was dejectedly playing a game of solitaire, and all the of the cards were scattered across the table, as if she was carelessly throwing everything – her life, her marriage, her son’s childhood, on and on – away with the cards.

I took this scene as a metaphor for August’s loss – he was 12 years old and experiencing “death” at the precise age his father said was “as good a age as any.” August knows that even in his 12 short years, he has lost out on a lot, and lot is not coming back. He knows this because there was a time when he had it. There was a time when he knew better.

There are many other layers to “Bretharians” than the ones I peeled back, and maybe you will dig through the rest of them. But while I read the story, I could never get past the cats.

And I could never get past the idea of this boy killing animals in an incredibly inhumane fashion. I cringed as I turned the pages, and that’s probably how Wink intended for the reader to feel: uncomfortable, wronged, a front-row intruder on the indirect corruption of a young boy’s soul.

Email: Twitter: @TMitrosilis

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