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  • Writer's pictureAlan Bray

Willy Wonty

The fifth story in Olive, “Starving” begins: “At the marina on Saturday morning, Harmon had to work not to stare at the young couple.” This immediately begs the question, why did Harmon have to work not to stare? What, by implication, was so interesting about the couple? Of course, also, who is Harmon and who is the young couple? The reader might hope the story would answer all these questions. We have some context—because it’s a chapter in Olive Kitteridge, the story will involve Olive somehow and will be set in Crosby, Maine.

So how does the story answer the question, why is Harmon trying to hide his interest in the couple? There’s no question of whether or not Harmon is interested in them. He is, it says so. It does not begin, “At the marina on Saturday morning, will Harmon stare at the young couple or will he not?” Or, “At the marina on Saturday morning, Harmon tried to decide whether or not to leave Bonnie for Daisy.”

Harmon is an older gent who owns the hardware store in Crosby. He is married long-term to Bonnie but she has told him she is no longer interested in sex. Right or wrong, he is carrying on a casual affair with a woman named Daisy.

In his fine book, Writing in General and in the Short Story in Particular, Rust Hills writes about different ways to create suspense and reader curiosity in fiction.

“The sort of suspense created by conflict is what Jessamyn West is supposed to have called “willy wonty,” the reader’s uncertainty as to whether a character “will” or “won’t” commit an act, decide a matter, do a deed, choose one instead of another, give up or go on, marry the girl or let her go. Willy wonty can be a wonderfully effective way of getting the reader to read on: it is the suspenseful reaction at its simplest.” However, “…the most obvious way to create it (tension), is by simply saying something is going to happen, and then putting it off.” “We wonder how and when and why,” (something will happen).

The couple Harmon is trying not to stare at are Nina White and her boyfriend, Tim Burnham. Harmon encounters them at the local restaurant, what he’s trying to avoid is their physical and sexual involvement with one another—their display of sexuality. Nina is pretty and seductive although strikingly thin. Harmon encounters them again in his store and overhears Nina saying that someone has a “fuck buddy.” Again, he tries to conceal his fascination. He later phones one of his adult sons and asks him the meaning of “fuck buddy.” The answer, his bemused son explains, is that it refers to a casual sexual relationship. Harmon decides this is what he’s been having with Daisy and that it’s not what he wants. He explains to Daisy that he wants them to get to know each other and be more intimate before being sexual. She agrees.

Then, by coincidence, Nina appears at Daisy’s house in distress over her anorexia. Harmon meets her. While he’s there at Daisy’s, Olive appears and shocks Harmon, who’s known her a long time, by bursting into tears over Nina’s plight.

Olive finished the doughnut, wiped the sugar from her fingers, sat back and said, “You’re starving.”

The girl didn’t move, only said, “Uh—duh.”

“I’m starving, too,” Olive said. The girl looked over at her. “I am,” Olive said. “Why do you think I eat every doughnut in sight?”

“You’re not starving,” Nina said with disgust.

“Sure I am. We all are.”

Eventually, Nina goes off to treatment but regrettably dies. Later, Harmon is troubled by encountering an elderly woman, Bessie Davis, at the hardware store. “Harmon felt a rush of anxiety as she left. Some skin that had stood between himself and the world seemed to have been ripped away, and everything was close, and frightening. Bessie Davis had always talked on, but now he saw her loneliness as a lesion on her face. The words Not me, not me crossed over his mind. And he pictured the sweet Nina White sitting on Tim Burnham’s lap outside the marina, and he thought, Not you, not you, not you.”

He tells Daisy he’s in love with her and they begin a more passionate sexual affair. “What had begun—not when they were “fuck buddies” but as a sweet interest in the other—questions probing the old memories, a shaft of love moving toward his heart, sharing the love and grief of Nina’s brief life, all this was now, undeniably, a ferocious and full-blown love, and his heart itself seemed to know this…He was waiting now—living in the hallucinatory world of Daisy Foster’s generous body—waiting for the day, and he knew it would come, when he left Bonnie or when she kicked him out…waiting…for open-heart surgery, not knowing if he would die on the table, or live.”

So, if we return to the beginning and the question posed by the opening sentence—why does Harmon have to work at not staring at the young couple—we now have an answer. Because he’s trying to avoid love. His journey is from denial of how he feels to acceptance of it. Like Olive Kitteridge herself, he’s been starved for love and dreading loneliness. The story could have been willy wonty—will Harmon connect with Daisy or won’t he—but it’s not structured that way.

Ms. Strout directs the narrator not to withhold a secret the way a willy wonty story might demand. Her stance as an author is to say, “Harmon’s love for Daisy is inevitable—here’s how it plays out.”

Thank you.


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