"Welding with Children"
In Gautreaux’s short stories you’ll find greasy car engines hanging from trees and derelict cars rusting in overgrown yards; two-lane roads with “abandoned filling stations and rickety vegetable stands” (p. 193); an 85-year-old woman speaking Acadian French to her chickens “because nearly everyone else who could speak it was dead” (p. 62); a Presbyterian minister who considers himself talented since “scores of cheating husbands and alimony dodgers in St. Tammany Parish had at least considered reform” (p. 113); a dredge-boat cook whose “stomach reached out farther than her breasts” and whose “angry red hair shrouded a face tainted by tattooed luminescent green eye shadow” (p. 150); an old man who’s forgotten his name wandering around a Wal-Mart parking lot clueless as to where he parked his car; an unemployed, one-armed, one-sixteenth African-American, lesbian women’s studies professor; a woman who tries to pull an upright piano out of her house using a John Deere tractor; four illegitimate children who drive to town with Paw Paw in a “bastardmobile”; and ladies who dote on the brandy-sipping local Catholic Father, filling his plate again and again with pork roast, potato salad, and sweet peas, “making over him as if he were an old spayed tomcat who kept the cellar free of rats” (p. 39).
If these characters sound like they waltzed straight out of a Flannery O’Connor collection, it’s because her writing influenced Gautreaux, as did Louisianan Walker Percy’s.
If O’Connor captured the backwoods people of Georgia, Gautreaux has accomplished the same for the rural people who populate Louisiana’s bayou country whose voices have seldom been heard. But Gautreaux treats his characters a little more kindly than O’Connor did; he shows more warmth and compassion for them as they struggle with life, even if their problems are self-inflicted.
Reviewer L. Lamar Nisly writes that although some of Gautreaux’s characters are “less than remarkable, sometimes downright unlikable,” the author “is able with memorable dialogue, pithy descriptions, and—often—a touch of the divine to help us see the humanity, growth, and grace in these characters.”
Gautreaux’s stories offer more humor and hope than O’Connor’s as well, although some of the tangled situations in which the characters find themselves are bleak. When a thief slaps 85-year-old Doris Landreneaux in an attempt to get her to shut up so that his robbery can proceed, her upper dentures go flying across the room, landing on the Formica dinette table. Gautreaux writes: “With no hesitation, she picked up her teeth and walked to the sink to rinse them off. Grabbing the incisors, she slid her dentures back in place.” (p. 63) Later Doris offers the burglar some chicken stew that’s been bubbling on the stove. “You burglars take time to eat or what?” she asks. (p.68)
When the grandfather in “Welding with Children” tries to educate his four grandchildren about the Bible by telling them the story of Adam and Eve, they become intrigued by the story’s talking snake who, he tells them, is “the devil in disguise.”
“Tammynette flipped her hair. ‘Aw, that’s just a old song. I heard it on the reddio. That Elvis Presley tune’s got nothing to do with the devil making himself into a snake in the Garden of Eden.'
‘Who’s Elvis Presley?’ Moonbean sat back in the dust by the weatherboard wall and stared out at my overgrown lawn.
‘He’s some old singer died a million years ago,” Tammynette told her.
‘Was he in the Bible too?’ (p.9)
Japanese-lantern Compacts and MTV
The grandfather in “Welding with Children” bemoans the fact that his four illegitimate grandchildren are growing up ignorant of religion and morality. Feeling partially responsible for the way he and his wife carelessly reared their unmarried mothers, Bruton turns off the TV while his grandchildren visit and tries to interest them in Bible stories. But he soon realizes he’s facing a nearly hopeless uphill battle:
“What’s the use? I’m just one old man with a little brown book of Bible stories and a doggy-hero book. How can that compete with daily MTV, kids’ programs that make big people look like fools, the Playboy Channel, the shiny magazines their mammas and their boyfriends leave around the house, magazines like Me, and Self, and Love Guides, and rental movies where people kill one another with no more thought than it would take to swat a fly….” (p. 13)
His attachment to “Paw Paw” in part stems from the fact that Gautreaux grew up without grandfathers.
“One thing a fiction writer does,” Gautreaux explained, “is he makes things that he doesn't have, so I make grandfathers for myself while I write.”
“Welding with Children” is one of my favorites too. You can’t help but feel empathy and hopefulness for the grandfather trying to instill some morality into his four grandchildren. When he overhears some old geezers refer to his Chevrolet Caprice as a “bastardmobile” when he is driving his grandkids into town for Icees, he knows it’s too late to change his four daughters, each unmarried with an illegitimate child and fond of dropping off their kids at his house for free child care, but maybe there’s hope for their children.
A village elder advises Bruton to take the grandchildren to church, clean up his cluttered yard, keep his grandkids with him as much as he can “or else they’ll wind up in Angola or on their backs in New Orleans.” (p. 15) The church and yard cleanup are relatively easy tasks (Famous Amos Salvage helps cart away cars, engines, lawn mowers, washing machines, and scrap iron), but teaching the grandkids about the Bible proves to be quite a challenge when Tammynette thinks The Bible is a movie because “I think I seen it down at Blockbuster,” Freddie thinks Conan the Barbarian might be a Bible movie because it “kicked ass” and “has swords and snakes in it,” and all of the kids say things like “shit dog” because their mothers’ boyfriends do or they heard them on late-night comedy shows. (p. 8)
“Sorry Blood” is an entirely different kind of story but is also one of my favorites in this collection. Gautreaux’s masterful depiction of an old man’s anxiety as he realizes he is losing his memory is heartwrenching, especially when we realize this character could be any of us:
“The old man walked out of Wal-Mart and stopped dead, recognizing nothing he saw in the steaming Louisiana morning. He tried to step off the curb, but his feet locked up and his chest flashed with a burst of panic. The blacktop parking lot spread away from him, glittering with the enameled tops of a thousand automobiles. One of them was his, and he struggled to form a picture but could not remember which of the family’s cars he had taken out that morning. He backstepped into the shade of the store’s overhang and sat on a displayed riding lawn mower. Putting his hands down on his khaki pants, he closed his eyes and fought to remember, but one by one, things began to fall away from the morning, and then the day before, and the life before.” (p. 141)
In terrifying detail, Gautreaux shows how victims of memory loss can be abused, in this case by a cunning but shiftless ne'er-do-well who discovers Etienne LeBlanc wandering around the Wal-Mart parking lot, claims to be his son, takes him home, and enslaves him to dig a drainage ditch while he drinks margaritas and looks at porno magazines. Etienne grieves not only for his past life that he can no longer remember but for the worthless “white trash” son he is led to believe he has raised.
Contrasting the horror of Etienne’s ditch-digging experience is the beauty with which Gautreaux writes of the return of Etienne’s memory, if only temporarily, and reunion with his grandson awaiting him in the familiar Wal-Mart parking lot:
“As if memory could be a decision, he accepted it all, knowing how that the only thing worse than reliving nightmares until he day he died was enduring a life full of strangers. He closed his eyes and called on the old farm in his head to stay where it was, remembered its cypress house, its flat and misty lake of sugarcane keeping the impressions of a morning wind.” (p. 159)
Tim Gautreaux's Writing Style
Gautreaux’s vivid imagery (in “Welding with Children” Bruton’s wife’s dyed hair is described as “the color and texture of fiberglass insulation”) (p. 17) and often quirky details (in “Rodeo Parole” he describes one inmate as “a tall, bent rail of a man with scrambled-egg hair and a barbecued, narrow face”) (p. 179) illustrate a region of the country that is unlike any other in the U. S. With what New York Times Reviewer Liam Callanan calls “perfect pitch,” Gautreaux captures the authentic voices of the people who live there.
A Library Journal review of this collection praises Gautreaux for “master[ing] the illusion of letting a story flow in such a natural way that it seems to tell itself. His economy of language is truly impressive as he creates realistic, multifaceted characters and complex situations in the space of a few pages. While some authors might be tempted to denigrate the down-home denizens of rural Louisiana or render them as caricatures with exaggerated speech or behavior, Gautreaux would rather give the reader the opportunity to inhabit their lives.”
About Tim Gautreaux
Gautreaux earned an English literature degree at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux and a PhD in literature from the University of South Carolina. He returned to Southeastern Louisiana University to teach and after years of writing poetry, began writing short stories when he enrolled in a writing seminar taught by Walker Percy.
Gautreaux has served as writer-in-residence at Southeastern Louisiana University for more than 30 years and won several awards for his novels and short stories.