Art and Fiction: Donald Antrim’s dark art

Guest Contributor Jonathan Stevenson / Artists populate a number of Donald Antrim’s ominous short stories. In some, their status as artists makes the story tick. One such story is “The Emerald Light in the Air,” which appeared in the The New Yorker last February and is the title story of his new collection, recently reviewed twice (here and here) in the NY Times.

[Image:  Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, The Rape of Europa, c. 1725, oil on canvas, 99 x 134 cm, Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice.]

  “The Emerald Light in the Air” features a troubled sculptor and middle-school art teacher nearing 50 named Billy who has suicide on his mind. He is estranged from his wife Julia, a painter, and ugly scenarios involving guns and drugs hover over him as he tools around the Blue Ridge countryside in his old Mercedes, putting off the final deed with brighter musings about his impending date with an old high-school flame. A storm and a forced detour impel him to help – in an odd and only vaguely intended way – some solemn but kind mountain folk, who then enable him to get home.

Antrim’s decision to make Billy and Julia artists allows him to sound semi-mystical notes in an otherwise mordant story about depression, a car accident, bad weather, and cancer. Billy remembers how Julia had intentionally distorted light in her paintings, and notes that she was “’searching for something that isn’t quite there.” For a painter, even a garden-variety one, this borders on cliché. Planted as a minor revelation in a story told from Billy’s point of view, though, it archly tags both of them as artists who have struggled with the other 99 percent, and, alongside his sentimental compulsion to keep the paintings in his back seat, helps explain his frustration and inertia. Reflections about Tiepolo’s painting The Rape of Europa on a trip to Venice flesh out Billy’s black worldview: whereas Julia’s interest in the piece is largely technical, Billy’s is narrative, turning as it does on the threat of an encroaching cloud on the main scene. Sinners and victims alike are doomed.

Antrim generates plenty of existential gravity out of pure action, and the story might have worked without the background about Billy or Julia’s vocations. But their history as artists renders what would have been a subdued tale of provisional rescue, mocking serendipity, into a deeper meditation on the small tragedy of youthful epiphanies that simply seem to hit a dead end. For Antrim, they may or may not be survivable. He takes his art and others’ very seriously.

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Two Coats of Paint is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution – Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. For permission to use content beyond the scope of this license, permission is required.

Two Coats of Paint is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution – Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. To use content beyond the scope of this license, permission is required.

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