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Why We Chose It

Blue Hills,” by Ali Hosseini appears in the May/June 2019 issue of the Kenyon Review.

The opening of Ali Hosseini’s story “Blue Hills” is marvelously economical. Roy Montgomery, the story’s central character, “liked to introduce himself as RM—Rare Man, he would boast to his friends when he was younger. He always considered himself lucky, not because of the way girls used to flock around him at parties, but for drawing number 365 in the Vietnam draft lottery and not having to run away to Canada or, worse, coming back home in a body bag.” In these few lines we learn how RM likes to style himself to others—his understanding of his own identity.

But that version of himself seems oddly fluid and unanchored. In some way it keeps him from ever quite growing up. RM floats through the first decades of his life always looking backward. This is not, after all, a story about Vietnam or the sixties, but about a middle-aged man suddenly finding himself lost in the vast, uncertain sea of midlife. It’s as if his early years have amounted to no more than a kind of existential summary or paraphrase until, in this story, he finds himself launched on a nostalgic journey in search of memory and old friends as he heads from Georgia up to a small town outside of Boston.

There he drops in on one of the buddies of his youth, Nelson, and his younger wife Hazel. They, however, are a couple entirely tethered to life and the present, to their own teenage son, Tracy. RM feels most comfortable with the boy, jamming on guitar, still frozen in an old identity. It’s only here, appropriately, that we get the story’s first fully fleshed scene, with dialogue and setting, among a family living a full realized life.

RM stayed quiet, the way he often did when put on the spot. He had promised himself he wouldn’t bring up something that would be embarrassing or lead to an argument. He smiled at Hazel, taking in the way her chestnut hair fell loose down to her shoulders and how her pale-green shirt brought out the color of her eyes. Again he wondered how Nelson, as shy as he used to be with girls, had managed it.

Only after Hazel has gone to bed and left the men to reminisce over a bottle of vodka, does RM mention a particular woman, April. Nelson at first pretends not to know her or not to remember. Yet we quickly gather that, whether he’s been conscious of it or not, RM’s journey has become a long-delayed pursuit of April, whom he wronged in some way all those years ago.

The next morning, Nelson and family already out on their regular routines of work and school, RM leafs through a guidebook they have left for him, only to discover “a small envelope. At first he didn’t pay attention, but then his eye caught the name on the corner of the envelope—April Atkinson—and the address—461 Marsh Hill Lane, Camden, Maine. . . . It was a note thanking Nelson and Hazel for their hospitality and saying how wonderful it was to see them again, especially Tracy.”

So RM realizes that Nelson was lying to him the night before. Whether or not tucking the note in the book was intended as reparation, RM sets off with new purpose on a new leg of his journey. In Maine he discovers April’s house easily enough, yet he approaches warily, questioning the wisdom of it. But she spies him and emerges. They recognize each other readily and she invites him in.

Hosseini’s decision to place the moment beyond language strikes me as exactly right, a virtuosic silence:

It seemed that they had nothing to say to each other, that time had resolved the bitterness and there was no need to talk about the past, what had happened, or what they could have done differently. It was as if this moment just sitting together was the most satisfactory thing.

April excuses herself for a moment and, again in silence, RM sees and understands and finishes a journey that as it happens has taken years.

He heard a soft sniffle from the kitchen and the sound of running water. . . . He stood up to look at the photographs. . . . [A]nd all at once he understood.

In a real sense RM’s life has been an uncompleted ellipsis from the opening of this story, defined by his luck in evading the draft, to the profoundly disorienting discovery in April’s living room. Only now does he come to understand not who he’s been but who he’s failed to be, and the void that yawns before him is cavernous.

I am filled with admiration at Ali Hosseini’s facility with silence and paraphrase, leaving ordinary dialogue for those moments that matter least.