Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Shout, by Dagoberto Gilb

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Odd, isn’t it, that we as a species can put a man on the moon but we can’t seem to master the intricacies of what would seem, on the surface, to be simple interpersonal relationships. While scientists are busy in laboratories designing advanced anti-virals and mapping the human genome, some of those very same scientists are going home to scenes of conflict and distress that provide them with no sanctuary against the ravages of the uncaring world. Take away the science and the education, take away the higher purpose of their work, indeed take away everything but the simple need to work in order to provide for the obligations, often unwillingly taken on, of a family’s security, and the stresses of that home life become even more acute and striking. Such is the scenario found in Dagoberto Gilb’s short story, “Shout,” where the reader is shown a snapshot into the life of a struggling young family as they attempt to prevail against the seemingly impossible odds that their situation has forced on them. Combine the stresses of a go-nowhere job, a general lack of appreciation, alcoholism, and a trio of mouths to feed, and the resultant dysfunction becomes self-evident. Gilb uses a portrayal of classic, stereotypical sex roles to illustrate the juxtaposed feelings of love and entrapment found in the co-dependent relationship of a man and his wife as they do what is necessary to keep their family together despite the considerable frustrations they feel as a result.


Men, by their nature, tend to be a very external species. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the most evident dissatisfaction found in the “Shout” household comes from the behavior of the nameless male character. At the outset of the story, he finds himself locked out of his own home by the latch on the screen door. At the end of a hard day’s labor, it is easy to see why this might irritate somebody who wants nothing more that to get inside and relax. More significantly, though, the screen door is the first symbol Gilb provides the reader with of the man’s feelings of impotence. Any man could easily tear down a screen door if need be, but this flimsy barrier is, for all intents and purposes, a wall of stone. The simple lock that his wife dropped into place on the screen has denied him his home and he is powerless to thwart her. So, he beats on the door and screams and yells until she comes to allow him into his apartment. However, he clearly expects no sanctuary there, for he has brought his hardhat in with him, rather than leaving it in his truck, indicating perhaps that going home is simply one more arduous labor to perform in the course of his day. To his mind, his wife is already mad by the time he gets in the door. “He took it that she’d been that way all day already,” effectively denying responsibility for his wife’s emotional state and victimizing himself as a result. All she can do is glare at him, which prompts his second display of impotence “You know sometimes I wish you were a man cuz I wouldn’t let you get away with looks like that. I wouldn’t take half the shit I take from you.” Of course, the mores of western society make a physical response as impossible as the destruction of the screen door, which serves as yet another reminder of his powerlessness. It is a typically male response to a situation where a man must be accountable to another person whom he cannot fit readily into his easily understood world of alpha-male based interpersonal relationships. Then he starts drinking. He is lost in his own world, showering, watching TV, oblivious to the labors of his wife as she struggles to keep the kids in line while cooking for the family. The kids are loudly complaining as he gets into his fifth beer. He snaps, shouting at the house in general. In his mind, he has no peace in his home, and his patience is depleted. When his wife responds, he takes it as a threat to his dominance and spouts “You don’t talk to me like that!” His wife even goads him to act, effectively calling his bluff, but he backs down, and further reinforces his self-image of impotence by saying “You better get away from me right now. You know, just go home, go to your mother’s, just go,” which, on the surface seems to be a warning that he is about to loose control, but is, in reality, a simple recognition of his defeat, his surrender of power to this woman who holds his home together. She knows who is in charge, and refuses to leave. He throws a brief tantrum, venting his need for physical violence on a target that poses no counter-threat to him the wall. A truce is achieved, until a neighbor complains about the baby’s crying. No doubt inspired to action by the sudden ability to test his manhood against another man, he dashes outside to act his part in that most masculine of plays, the defense of the family. No one responds to his challenge, and he is able to return to his home somewhat changed. Gone is the rage of his homecoming, cathartically dispelled by his explosive reassertion of manliness, the sole expression of masculinity left to him. His subsequent interaction with his wife seems to come from a different person, a person who is once more able to cope with his place in the world. He is even philosophical as he sobers up, imagining all the worst-case scenarios that could have resulted from his outburst and declaring, “I’m getting too old for that shit.” She questions him about the security of his job, and the resulting exchange shows just how fragile their situation is. With no job security, he cannot help but feel somewhat emasculated, almost as if the only male role left for him to play is the one he has already filled by confronting his neighbors. When he learns of the dubious news of his wife’s pregnancy, he takes it pretty well, but seems almost baffled by their apparent inability to control their reproductive tendencies, “I would’ve never thought it could happen…that one time, and it wasn’t even good,” almost as if to say “so that’s where babies come from!” The reader can’t help but think that their sex life can’t be too interesting; the impression is of sex infrequently had, resulting (imagine that) in a series of not-entirely welcome pregnancies. This is really the final frustration for the man, but it is salved by his wife’s sexual compliance. By the end, he even experiences “joy,” but it is an obviously polar, co-dependent psychology, the result of a situation where two people must learn to love after being glued together by their obligations. He even seems to intuitively understand this, “He thought he should hold onto this as long as he could,” but, of course, he couldn’t. A new day was coming, and he knew that the previous day’s performances would be repeated again.


Although “Shout” is a tale told from a purely male perspective, the husband’s somewhat offhand observations give profound insight into the thoughts and frustrations of the wife’s personality. She is a dutiful and patient woman who displays many nurturing behaviors that her husband seems totally oblivious to. Her frustrations are themselves silent, manifested only by the occasional outburst when her husband’s ignorance of her contributions is too much for her to bear. First and most obvious she is raising three sons. That this is a full time job is something lost on her husband, who feels his day is done when he pops his first beer. Unfortunately, her job has no easily definable work-day. In fact, now she simply has one more person to take care of, cook for, clean up after, and discipline. The only reason her man is able to take his two nearly frozen beers from the freezer is that she has obviously put them there for him, else they would have frozen completely while he was at work. She really does him a favor by basically not tolerating his extensive bullshit. She grounds him, and keeps him in check, knowing exactly who wields the real power in the house. When he rages, and the children begin to cry, she takes them into the kid’s room to care for them until his anger has run it’s course. When he finally comes back to her, she is the first to make a peace offering, saying in response to his verbal defense of the family “I was happy you went after that man. I always wanna do stuff like that,” which is about the best thing in the world she could say to a husband who is so obviously questioning his value as a father, defender, and provider. Of course, she is the first and only person to say, “I love you” in the entire story. Her dissatisfaction comes, not from the many little iniquities that the man seems to suffer, but from a deeper sense of being denied the one thing that all her work has more than earned her appreciation. It is often a mother’s only immediate reward, and it is totally typical that she must go on doing her job without it. Her husband is so caught up in his own plight that he is unable to see the reasons for her frustrations as well. She is fast asleep when her husband hears the noise of the freeway rise, warning of the impending workday, but she needs no reminder to know what role she will play in the coming day.


Though the roles the husband and wife play are almost textbook depictions of male-female stereotypes, they serve Gilb well in his portrayal of their frustration with a destiny that, probably, neither would have chosen, but both are doomed to fulfill. The husband suffers from a despair born of his apparent inability to assert his power in his own house. This can only result in a sense of deep confusion about his role in his family’s home life, where he seems to be a superfluous element, or worse a greater frustration to his wife. The wife, whose job produces no income and pays no rent, must suffer in silence the husband’s unappreciative behavior as she works from the moment the children awake to the moment her husband goes to sleep. She knows that her job is no less valuable than his somewhat unstable employment, but he doesn’t seem to realize that at all. In the end, they are two people seemingly brought together by love, but ultimately kept together by their needs and obligations to each other and their children. That their love stems from their co-dependent sharing of life’s burdens is evident, but it is a brief thing, gained only in snapshots before sunrise as they prepare to meet a new day of duty and service to each other, and to the uncaring world that they inhabit.


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