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  • Writer's pictureAlan Bray

The Hit-Thumb Theory - Anything Is Possible

Let’s continue our exploration of Elizabeth Strout’s Anything Is Possible. Last time, we began looking at a prime structural feature of the book, that it is made up of nine somewhat autonomous stories, connected by characters, theme and narrator. We studied the first chapter, The Sign, and concluded that it could function as a self-contained short story.

(You’re making your blog sound a lot more coherent than it really is.)

‘Kay. Thank you. I refuse to get involved in one of these childish arguments.

Another chapter is entitled The Hit-Thumb Theory; its protagonist, Charlie Macauley, is a resident of Carlisle, Illinois, which places him in the vicinity of where most of the book’s protagonists live.

Charlie, previously referenced in Windmills as Patty Nicely’s crush, is a Vietnam veteran with a severe PTSD condition whose origins are left to the reader’s imagination. The title refers to an idea he developed in Vietnam that if you should accidently hit your thumb with a hammer, the pain will be delayed after a moment of surprise during which you wonder if you’re really okay. And you aren’t.

In Hit-Thumb, we find him unhappy in his marriage to Marilynn (also introduced in Windmills) and in the midst of a long-term affair with a woman named Tracy. The story begins with Charlie waiting in a hotel room for Tracy, with no knowledge that this is to be their last encounter.

“Waiting for her to arrive, Charlie Macauley watched from the windows as twilight began to gather.” This is a great first line, as, by the time you reach the end, it will resonate in a story about a man struggling with darkness. After a memory of he and his wife in their youth, he closes the ancient window blinds. “Panic, like a large minnow darting upstream, moved back and forth inside him. He was suddenly as homesick as a child sent to stay with relatives…I want to go home, he thought, (but) it was not his home in Carlisle, Illinois, where he lived with Marilynn that he wanted to go home to, his grandchildren just down the street. And it was not his childhood home either…He did not know what home it was he longed for, but it seemed to him as he aged that his homesickness would increase and because he could not tolerate the Marilynn he now lived with…he did not know what he would do and the minnow darting through the stream of his anxiety…swam to the woman who might or might not show up here…and not one place seemed stable.”

The woman, Tracy, does show up but instead of the sexual encounter Charlie anticipated, she indicates she must talk to him about a serious matter.

“He knew instantly. His instincts had been honed in youth and this ability had never left him, the one to detect disaster.”

After an initially transactional affair that has become mutually caring, Tracy asks Charlie for money, ten thousand dollars, because her son is in trouble, owing the money to drug dealers. Charlie refuses: he has that sum of money but feels used by Tracy whom he thought really cared for him.

“…they fell in love—he had loved her really from the start and she said she had fallen in love with him too, and told him her name was Tracy…And that was how it had been for seven months now: desperately in love. Charlie did not like desperate.”

Besides, if he gave her that sum of money, his wife would find out. He lashes out at Tracy, reminding her that she is an escort, that she means nothing to him beyond sex.

But of course that isn’t true, and he decides to give her the money.

“The bewilderment of how much he loved her—yet that was more knowledge now than feeling—when not on any conceivable level did it make sense, except for the only one that mattered: She had saved him, given him the space within which he could breathe.”

He gives Tracy the money and tells her never to contact him again.

After they part, he begins to have a PTSD-related panic attack and decides to go to a local B&B for the night. He has some medication but can’t take another dose for several hours. The B&B is run by Dottie Blaine, another character in the book who will soon rate her own chapter. Charlie asks if he can stay up and watch TV with her while he waits for the onset of a severe panic attack.

“But now, for the first time, it occurred to him…that there was something far more frightening: people who no longer felt pan at all. He had seen it in other men—the blankness behind the eyes, the lack that then defined them.

“So Charlie, a tiny bit, sat up straighter, and he stared pretty hard at the television set…He waited and he hoped, he practically prayed…Dear God, please could you? Could you please let it come?”

It should be said that, in a later chapter concerning Dottie, the B&B owner, we are shown what transpires in this scene, from Dottie's perspective. In another chapter, we learn that Charlie subsequently leaves his wife and gets involved with Patty Nicely. But in Hit-Thumb, we get a complete story. Charlie has been using the affair with Tracy to manage the PTSD pain he feels and with the affair’s end, the pain resurges although he realizes that the ability to feel anything makes him more human. And this is the Hit-Thumb Theory in action: Charlie has a delayed response to the end of a very meaningful affair.

As with The Sign, we have all the features of a short story in The Hit-Thumb Theory. It is self-contained, not requiring any contextualization by the larger collection—although there is that synergy created by reading the whole thing. A protagonist transforms. Charlie realizes he’s been dulling the pain he feels by a love affair, and that he must experience it in all its awfulness as to do so validates who he is.

Very well. Have the critics been silenced? Let’s continue next time.

Till then.


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