“Leg,” by Steven Polansky
Appeared in the New Yorker on January 24th, 1994 (subscribers can read online); read by David Gilbert for the excellent November 2014 New Yorker Fiction Podcast; anthologized in The Best American Short Stories 1995, edited by Katrina Kennison and guest editor Jane Smiley; reprinted September 25, 2013 as issue no. 71 of Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, thanks to J. Robert Lennon
An amazing story.
David Gilbert describes the main character’s choice as “incredibly passive-aggressive” and ultimately a mistake. I disagree on both counts. I see Dave’s sacrifice as inspired—by God or by his subconscious, it doesn’t matter which—and I think it does save his relationship with his son. On a rational level, it’s senseless, but on the nonrational level of mysticism or Oedipal tensions, it makes perfect sense. He’s chosen the small gate, the narrow road that leads to life.
For Gilbert, the idea that Dave’s pain can alleviate Randy’s is too heavy-handed, too pat, too “O. Henry-esque.” He sees the story as undercutting its central symbol. I take the symbol at face value. For me, it works because Dave’s sacrifice is so huge, so dark, and so ostensibly casual—almost disinterestedly casual.
One thing that complicates (and perhaps inhibits) my understanding of the story is that I identify completely with Randy. I don’t believe he’s “simply going through adolescence,” as Gilbert puts it, or “simply” anything. I feel that Randy needs to see his father debased (or cut down to size, or any other Freudian double entendre you like) before he can tolerate him. In the end, Randy has to choose whether he needs his father to actually die or just get symbolically castrated.
Maybe Randy will end up resenting having to make that choice. Maybe it ultimately hurts him more. For that matter, maybe Randy overheard Dave’s prayer about him; maybe Dave passive-aggressively let him hear it. I don’t know. I feel like everything may be okay, but I don’t know.
This is one of those stories where it’s possible for two readers to interpret it in completely opposite ways, and yet agree that it is a great, great piece, because it’s so well-made and so alive.
Edited to say how much I love the exchange that starts around here: “Randy began to drift in his father’s direction, up the line. Dave watched his unwitting tack with gratitude and wonder.” There are so many ways to interpret Randy’s behavior, for both the readers and Dave.