Brad Talks to The New Yorker about “Eykelboom”
The following is an interview by Cressida Leyshon:
Originally published in The New Yorker (November 17, 2014)
This week’s story, “Eykelboom,” opens as the Eykelbooms, a family of three, move into a new house. The boys who live in the neighborhood eye the son with skepticism. Did you start the story knowing it would be about this family?
Sometimes a story doesn’t come together for me until I’ve put it in and taken it out of the drawer, so to speak, for a long time—years, in many cases. I wrote a story years ago that included the scene with the horse in the swamp, but the character who would eventually become Eykelboom was originally a very different boy, with a very different family. Later, dissatisfied with the original character, I came up with Eykelboom, but even then there were vestiges of the original story that didn’t fit. When I decided to put the McGowen boys in there (they first appeared in a story, “Vacuum,” in my collection “Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives”), plus Wayne and the Harbour twins (one of the twins was also in “Vacuum”), the story began to open up toward what it is now.
This neighborhood is modelled on the one I grew up in, in Meridian, Mississippi. I’ve used the neighborhood, or some version of it, in more than one story, including my novel, “The Heaven of Mercury.” That place is imprinted so strongly in my memory that it has taken on a kind of life independent of fact or real history—although what I recall as real is a solid and fertile imaginative landscape or place.
You never mention Mississippi by name in the story, but it’s clear that it’s taking place in the South and that the Eykelbooms have only just moved from the North—the boys imagine that they may have come from Indiana or Illinois, “some crude and faceless Yankee state.” How important is the tension between North and South in the story?
Very. The story is set in the nineteen-sixties, and during that time, in my home town (a very small Southern city), it was actually somewhat rare for people to move there from outside the Deep South. So, unfortunately, these people were often regarded as somewhat odd, even alien. Only the most likeable and adaptable survived or thrived. A family that lived next door to my family for a number of years was from Boston. We could not really imagine Boston. I think all we knew of Boston was what we’d learned studying the American Revolution. Unlike now, regional isolation was a strong cultural component in our sense of who we were—of what the world was, in fact. Of course, many of the children I knew had never even travelled farther than the state capitol, Jackson, only a hundred miles away.
The boys in the neighborhood roam free, with parents who rarely trouble themselves about what they’re up to. Eykelboom, though, is closely monitored by his father. “Of course it was common in those days for parents to hit their children,” the story observes, yet Eykelboom’s father displays a particularly harsh punitive streak. You show him waiting for Eykelboom outside the house, but the story never follows them inside. Was that a deliberate decision?
Not really. It was intuitive. But, thinking about it now—and in light of what I say above about how strange some people from other regions were perceived to be—it was as if the interiors of such people’s homes were even more intensely alien environments. I can remember entering the Bostonians’ house with the same curious trepidation you might observe in a cat entering a strange house for the first time.
The story traces the dynamics of the boys’ friendships—and Eykelboom’s eagerness to be accepted. At a certain point, he withdraws from them. Would his fate in the story have been different had he found a place in their gang?
Possibly. But that would be a different story. When you think of a child’s visceral need for friendship and acceptance by peers, it’s terrible that this boy is denied those things, and that this combined with his father’s violent disciplinarian tendencies pushes him over the edge into his disappearance, I guess I’ll say. His vanishing. Vanished, as William Gay might have said, into the abstract.
Boyhood isn’t always easy. Did writing this make you nostalgic for yours, or relieved that it was over?
Both. I miss my parents, my original family. I miss the good things about boyhood, if not the hard things. Maybe even some of the hard things, yes. As you get older, of course, and so many things and people begin to disappear, you miss a lot that you once didn’t think you’d ever miss.