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Mary Lavin: Surf's Up--Way Up!

Filed under: The Katharine Wheel: On Fiction   Tagged: , , , ,

You should read Mary Lavin’s short story “The Great Wave” as soon as you possibly can. The story appeared in the June 13, 1959 issue of The New Yorker, so if you have to buy your own copy of The Complete New Yorker to read it, and this story is the only thing you ever read in the CNY, it’ll be worth it.

I hadn’t heard of Mary Lavin before, but given her eminence, it appears I should have. If you scan Martin’s partial list of fiction from TNY that has also appeared in the Best American Short Stories anthology series, you’ll find that Lavin’s name fairly jumps out at you. Between 1959 and 1976, she published 15 stories in TNY, of which six, or 40%, were selected for BASS.

That’s a huge percentage. A toes-and-fingers count shows that even the mighty Alice Munro, who knows Mary Lavin’s work and was influenced by it, has not achieved Lavin’s ratio of TNY to BASS publication. Between 1977, when Munro first published a story in TNY, and 2004, where Martin’s list stops, she published 47 stories in TNY, but only 16, or 34%, were selected for BASS. (Not that she needs to worry about her own eminence. As Mark Asch wrote in The L Magazine recently, “Alice Munro is the windshield and pretty much every other living writer is the bug.”)

But back to “The Great Wave.” I’ve now read four of the 15 stories Lavin published in TNY, and it’s unquestionably the best so far, even though it didn’t make it into BASS. Since I know not everyone can access the CNY, I’ll sketch it here. (Consider this your spoiler warning—though it’s the sort of story whose power is not lessened when you know the plot.)

Our story begins with a Bishop. He’s being rowed from the Irish mainland to an unnamed island, where he is to perform the confirmation ceremony, as he does every four years. We learn a few things: he’s fussy about his rich vestments, his colleague is jealous of the money that went into them, and the Bishop grew up on the island he’s visiting.

Now, up to this point, it’s natural to think “The Great Wave” will be a quiet story—perhaps the Bishop will meet the girl he loved before he went away to seminary? Whatever the case, one expects it will uneventful, most likely petering out in a bleak, ironic conclusion.

Nunh-uh. Lavin wrote stories like that, it’s true, but this isn’t one of them.

For “Wave” quickly shifts to the Bishop’s childhood. Though all the other men and boys go out to fish, little Jimeen (i.e., the Bish, in knee pants) is kept from the sea by his widowed mother, who has already lost her husband to the ocean and doesn’t want to lose her son as well. As her son grows, the other villagers resent her protectiveness, because they could use an extra pair of hands when the catch comes in. Yet she is right, for they all fish in small, hidebound boats known as “currachs”: men are scarce, because they often drown.

Then Seoineen Keely, a former wild boy turned seminary student, returns to the island for a visit. The very next morning, the seed herring come in, and all the men in the village go out in their boats for the harvest. Seoineen impetuously goes out as well, with Jimeen as his helper. At first, there’s some question of whether Jimeen’s mother will allow him to go, but because Seoineen is practically a priest and correctly prophesied that the catch would come in that morning, sentiment runs in his favor:

“If you’re ever going to let him go out at all, this is your one chance, surely?” they said. “Isn’t it like it was into the hands of God Himself you were putting him, woman?”

Jimeen’s mother relents, and the two push out to sea. At first, Seoineen exults, happy to be back doing the hard, physical labor he grew up with, so different from life at the seminary. The fish are improbably plentiful, too, crushed together like “pebbles on the shore,” and all of the villagers haul in full nets as fast as they can.

Before long, however, a storm rolls in.

As Jimeen rose up to his full height to throw the net out wide, there was a sudden terrible sound in the sky over him, and the next minute a bolt of thunder went volleying overhead, and in the same instant, it seemed, the sky was knifed from end to end with a lightning flash.

Were they blinded by the flash? Or had it suddenly gone as black as night over the whole sea?

After this, they are disoriented, thrown close in one moment to another craft, manned by a fellow villager named Martin, then thrown so far apart their shouts cannot be heard. Although all the boats are threatened by the sudden storm—indeed, they must cut their nets and abandon the harvest to avoid being capsized—Seoineen rages with exhilaration and greed. He wants to be the only one to return to shore with fish, and though he eventually cuts his own net, he refuses to let go of it, even though his fingers are trapped in it and viciously cut by the weight of the fish it carries.

And then comes the wave.

All [Jimeen] saw was a great wall, a great green wall of water. No currachs anywhere. It was as if the whole sea had been stood up on its edge, like a plate on a dresser. Down that wall of water there slid a multitude of dead fish.

Then down the same terrible wall, sliding like a dead fish, came an oar—a solitary oar. And a moment afterward, inside the glass wall, imprisoned as if under a glass dome, he saw—oh God!—a face looking out at him, staring at him through a foot of clear green water. It was the face of Martin. For a minute, the eyes of the dead man stared into his eyes. With a scream, Jimeen threw himself against Seoineen and clung to him tight as iron.
The wave deposits them on the island—not on the shore, where the village lies, but on top of the island’s promontory, which rises “four times the height of the steeple.” When Jimeen comes to, he is under the boat, the fish are littered about, and Seonieen is looking down at the sea. The boy remembers poor, dead Martin and wonders who else has made it back to shore safely.
[Jimeen] craned over the edge of the promontory to see what currachs were back in their places, turned upside down and leaning a little to one side, under the wall that divided the sand from the dune, so you could crawl under them if you were caught in a sudden shower.

There were no currachs under the wall; none at all.

There were no currachs on the sea.

Nor is that the worst of it. Jimeen asks Seoineen why they don’t hear the village women keening over their losses.

“God help them,” said Seoineen. “At least they were spared that.” And he nodded to where, stuck in the latticed shutters on the side of the steeple, there were bits of seaweed and—yes—a bit of the brown mesh of a net.

Everyone has been drowned. Everyone.

The boys take it differently. Seoineen, his hands damaged, is set in bitterness and turned away from the priesthood.

“It was my greed that was the cause of it,” he said, and there was such a sorrow in his face that Jimeen, only then, began to cry. “It has cost me my two living hands,” said Seoineen, and the anguish of his eyes was in his voice as well.

“But it saved your life, Seoineen!” he cried, wanting to comfort him.

Never did he forget the face Seoineen turned to him. “For what?” he asked.

Jimeen has no answer for him, though he has one for himself:

It was a grief too great to grasp, and still, still, even in the face of it, Jimeen’s mind was enslaved to the thought of their miraculous salvation.
The boy—plucked out of the ocean, a maelstrom, a whole way of life— finds what Seoineen has lost. Lavin wastes no time laboriously showing Jimeen’s path to the bishopric because it’s self-evident, for all its unexpectedness. The Bishop himself marvels about the path he’s taken:
“Who knows anything at all about how we’re shaped, or where we’re led, or how, in the end, we are ever brought to our rightful haven?”
Indeed. Lavin has stripped her tale down expertly, condensing a meditation on life’s cruel mystery into a taut package with only a few characters. Indeed, when read (for example) side-by-side with the loose, flabby stories in the TNY’s 2008 summer fiction issue, its brevity and power seem all the more impressive.

“The Great Wave” is stunning. Catch it soon!


Oh my, that was something. For some reason the name Stephen Crane comes to mind.

Glad you liked it, Martin. Not read any Crane (to my shame, I know), so it’s hard for me to compare. But something about the stony beauty of Lavin’s story seems like it would be eminently suitable for something like The Red Badge of Courage.

This story has haunted me for nearly 50 years -since I first read it in the New Yorker. I was uncertain about the author - all I remembered was Irish and female - and I had forgotten the “Great” in the title. Something brought the story to mind a few days ago and I located it in the New Yorker archives this morning. I fully intend to read it again, but like only the greatest fiction, this story has the aura of timeless mystery we usually find only in myths.
Does the story appear in any other collection besides “The Great Wave and Other Stories”?

David FischerDecember 07, 2008

According to this impressive online database of fiction anthologies curated by William Contento, the answer, remarkably, appears to be no, it is not in any other collection. It would be wonderful if the story experienced a second shot at posterity.

I read this story many, many years ago in the New Yorker. Something brought it to mind just a few days ago and thanks to a new computer and a high speed connection, I was able to find it in the New Yorker archives - I’d forgotten the author and the “Great ” in the title. I’ve avoided reading too much of the posted summary as I fully intend to read it again, but the story has haunted me for nearly a half century. Like only the greatest fiction, this story possesses the timeless and life enlarging air of mystery usually found only in myths.
Now a question. Is “The Great Wave” included in any of the collected stories anthologies aother than the one with “The great Wave”

David FischerDecember 07, 2008

I see Martin’s already replied, David, and more knowledgeably than I could have. It does amaze me that the story doesn’t seem to have had a longer shelf life in anthologies: I’m not surprised it’s haunted you for nearly 50 years. It’s certainly the sort of story that makes me want to grab people in the street by the lapels and say, “Here! Read this!”

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