“We had always operated better in the open, I thought, where the vastness of the world caused us to draw close like cubs raised together in a dark, cramped den.” This observation comes from the narrator in “Brother, Unadorned,” one of the stories in Alyson Hagy’s new collection, Graveyard of the Atlantic, and, as with the collection’s title, its immediate reference is to the landscape of North Carolina’s Outer Banks, where all but one of the stories are set. Throughout Hagy’s collection this landscape draws from the mainland the recently widowed, the imploding poet, her obliging husband and “those edgy divorced types who like to see if they can hack loneliness in the dark.” For most of these characters it is the physical and social spareness in the world of the Outer Banks, as much as its vastness, that has drawn them. In a word, they’ve come for solitude.
Or think they have, anyway. Because it’s when each of these characters begins to discover she’s not the only one out here trying so hard to be alone that the really valuable developments begin, and we get the impression that somehow, in spite of themselves, these characters have suspected all along that it might happen this way. What many of them find, naturally, is that when they finally do bump into people out here, the absence of mainland America clutter only serves to make these encounters stick, to foreground the very human exchanges from which so many of them are supposedly running away. Reading these stories is at times a bit like watching people meet by chance in the middle of the desert–minus, of course, the elaborate premises such a story collection would entail. Anyway, all of this makes for some powerful moments between the characters that walk the beaches and piers of Hagy’s stories.
One of the most potent of these moments comes in the collection’s opener, “Sharking,” where the narrator is ex-Navy, retired, and divorced, a man who just wants to be left alone for the night to take his small pleasures where he can find them, namely, in tending his shark rig at the end of the pier. When one evening he allows himself to leave his rig untended in order to rescue some goofy college boys in distress, he returns to find his line run out and snapped. The rare moment has happened without him. He questions the moment’s lone witness, a nearby fellow solitudinarian, a woman whose story has repeatedly drawn his speculation throughout the night and in the end lends a deep and solemn resonance to her words as she answers him, “I watched it for you … I did that, in the time I had.” It is an encounter, the narrator recognizes, powerful enough to change the very landscape: “It occurs to me that I’ll probably never come out here without thinking of her, and knowing that is a strange sort of gift after the kind of night I’ve had. I’ll be out here again, a hundred more times I hope, and somehow so will she, sketched darkly against land’s end. Gone in body, held in memory, like we all might hope to be.”
This alludes to another feature of the Outer Banks landscape that becomes thematically significant in this collection. As more or less a great big sandbar, the islands are, to say the least, topographically impermanent, peculiarly ephemeral. As such, they are as much a moment of time as a landscape, and are a rich metaphor for the ever-passing moment of time that is life itself. As Tally Ford, the recently widowed narrator of “North of Fear, South of Kill Devil” says: “Hatteras Island is a sandbar. A big hurricane would bury it, and I sometimes imagine what it would look like then, swept clean of house trailers and garbage cans and billboards. No more sandwich wrappers, no more Jeep Cherokees or neon sails. The bait shop would collapse into the silty ripple of a tidal flat, and only the Buxton lighthouse would remain, water lapping at its waist, its beacon sweeping over a land lost to depth and reflection.”
“It’s a vision I enjoy,” she adds, presumably aware of what’s ironically implied in this picture of her temporary home–to wit, no more Hatteras, no more you, Tally. But then there’s little rub in that, since everybody knows that for the grieving death can appear the most attractive among the options. No, for Tally Ford the awful, necessary struggle is to carry on while “there is life and current all around” and with them an abiding awareness of the impermanence of it all.
But there is in Graveyard a very different brand of personality than the ones so far mentioned, for not all of Hagy’s characters have come here looking for something. In fact, some have not come here at all; they are from here. Born and raised on the Outer Banks, these characters are, in an important sense, products of its landscape, people whose fears and loyalties have been shaped by it, sometimes for generations. They are less naive about desolate beauty and solitude. They know them as a way of life and a source of strength, and as ultimately inadequate resources that can be terribly difficult to trade on.
One of the strongest examples of such a character is Aaron Ballance, the schoolboy islander in “The Snake Hunters.” He and some friends cross paths with a mainland school group come to search Ocracoke for a rare snake specimen, and despite derision by his friends, Aaron joins their search party, not from any interest in the snake, but from his interest in them, particularly their lone female delegate, Zara. But Aaron’s dealings with Zara and her crowd only confirm what island life has already been teaching him, that relations with people are much messier even than relations to winds and tides, and the temptation is always for him to “take the skiff out into the Sound, way out, and drift into the night, forget the new people, forget his friends, respect nothing but the tidal currents that had no loyalties.” Aaron cannot bring himself to trust this fantasy, however, for life out here has also taught him another tough truth, one Hagy’s mainlanders have had to come to the remote locale to discover: “that it took courage and conviction and luck to make it as an honest man out here. That an independent life was so impossible.”
In his stumbling toward a livable life between these truths, young Aaron Ballance is struggling to give tenable shape to his future. For John Hansen, mulling the same truths in Graveyard‘s last and longest story, “Search Bay,” there is little left to struggle with but the shape of the past. “Search Bay” was included in Best American Short Stories 1997, and is the only story in Hagy’s collection not set on the Outer Banks, but on the shores of Lake Huron in Northern Michigan. Strong similarities bind the two landscapes, and, as it turns out, their indigenous dilemmas. John Hansen is a retired waterman, a man who has long since made his choices and lives the life of a hermit in a cabin on the lake, where the temptation for him is to go “beyond solitude toward something dark and squatting entirely.”
One late fall day a young Chippewa stops by Hansen’s cabin to inform him that he’ll be trapping beaver near the place, and so, in a quiet way, begins to threaten the precarious inner balance of Hansen’s lonely life. Later, Hansen discovers that the boy is the son of a woman who tends bar at his old haunt in town, a woman that Hansen in younger days nearly let himself love. When the young man meets his death in a freak and grisly winter accident, Hansen finds himself dragged back over the ground of all the hard choices of the years, the choices that have set him out here alone and helpless and, what proves most bitter, unhelpful.
Hansen’s lesson is a familiar one for the characters of Graveyard of the Atlantic, a collection populated by people whose hopes of finding clarity in remote places are met by more human interaction, more messiness. In an era of mourning for the decline of wilderness, Hagy’s anthem is unusual, for she is not crying out for us to save the isolated, the solitary, the edge of our continent, so much as she is exploring the difficult emotional terrain awaiting those who would travel there.