12 Winters Blog

The True Intruder in William H. Gass’s “The Pedersen Kid”

Posted in March 2013 by Ted Morrissey on March 3, 2013

The following paper — “The Trauma of Alcohol Abuse:  The True Intruder in William H. Gass’s ‘The Pedersen Kid'” — was presented at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900, University of Louisville, Feb. 23, as part of the panel “Barthelme & Gass:  Postmodern Fiction,” chaired by Hoang Thi Hue, Hue University, Vietnam.  The other presenters on the panel were Nicholas Sloboda, University of Wisconsin-Superior, whose paper was “Image and Textual Play:  Adventures in Donald Barthelme’s Alternative and Liminal Narratives”; and Jonathan Imber Shaw, Kutztown University of Pennsylvania, whose paper was “Executive Function in Donald Barthelme’s Early Fiction.”

The Trauma of Alcohol Abuse:

The True Intruder in William H. Gass’s “The Pedersen Kid”

Though written in 1951 and therefore constituting one of William H. Gass’s earliest works of fiction, the novella “The Pedersen Kid” did not appear in print until a full decade later in John Gardner’s short-lived journal MSS.  This paper is based specifically on the version of the novella that appeared in Gass’s seminal collection In the Heart of the Heart of the Country in 1968.  The title story of that collection and Gass’s long, dense novel The Tunnel (which appeared in 1995) have received the lion’s share of critical attention over the decades, while discussion of “The Pedersen Kid” has been meager to put it mildly.  Some writers have noted the connection between Gass’s well-known miserable childhood—made miserable by Gass’s alcoholic mother and hateful bigot of a father—and the fact that the novella’s first-person protagonist is leading his own miserable life thanks mainly to his abusive and alcoholic “Pa”; but they have failed to go much beyond that obvious surface connection.

The purpose of this paper is to suggest that understanding the trauma of alcohol abuse within the context of a family is key to more fully understanding the enigmatic novella, whose final section in particular has left both casual readers and critics scratching their heads in puzzlement for more than forty years.  In fact, Arthur M. Saltzman said that attempting to gain a clear view of the plot is “self-defeating” because “Gass steers us into cul-de-sacs, lets loose ends dangle, and plunges without warning into subjective distortions,” thereby leaving the two most suspenseful narrative questions unresolved and unrelieved (60).

Set in mid twentieth-century North Dakota, at the conclusion of a terrible blizzard, the novella begins with the farmhand Big Hans finding the boy from the neighboring Pedersen farm in the yard unconscious and nearly frozen to death as he apparently walked there through the previous night’s storm.  Later, partially revived, the boy tells Big Hans (allegedly) that an intruder broke into their house and forced his parents into the frigid root-cellar, but somehow the boy escaped and managed to make it on foot all the way to the Segren farm in spite of the blizzard.  Most of the novella centers around the three males of the Segren family—Big Hans, Pa Segren, and the young narrator (12 or 13?), Jorge Segren—making their way to the Pedersen farm through the frozen landscape to see if the boy’s story is true, though the act is more about Pa’s punishing Hans and Jorge than trying to do a neighbor a good turn; in fact, Pa seems to hate Pedersen even more than he hates everyone else around him, referring to him as a “cock,” a “bastard,” a “fool,” and a “shit”; and blaming Pedersen for every bad turn of events, including the previous summer’s grasshopper infestation and even the previous day’s blizzard.

At the root of Pa’s punishment, in addition to his natural mean-spiritedness, is the fact that some of his precious whiskey was found in what he thought was a secure hiding place and used to resuscitate the Pedersen kid without Pa’s permission.  That seems to be the reason he keeps driving them forward, toward the Pedersen farm and its possible danger, in a horse-drawn wagon that can barely make it through the all but impassable roads and fields.  The motivation is freshened part way there, when they are all so miserable with cold they are thinking of turning back, Pa’s whiskey bottle falls out of the wagon and is eventually broken by a wagon wheel.  Even though he had nothing to do with breaking the bottle, Hans apologizes but to no avail:  “Pa squinted at the snow [. . . and] drove” (44).

There have been several theories put forward to explain the novella, which at first suggests a distinct and straightforward narrative arc—namely answering the questions “Did an intruder break into the Pedersen house?” and “Are the Pedersens alive or dead?”—but which disintegrates by the end into ambiguity and downright confusion.  Saltzman says it well:  “Relentlessly convoluted in design, as though the all-compassing blizzard in the story were rendering all perception hesitant and indistinct, ‘The Pedersen Kid’ is replete with allegorical options for the discerning reader and is equally accommodating to Freudian, Christian, and heraldic archetypes” (59).  Also well put, Patricia Kane writes, “One can locate several points in the story at which Jorge may have hallucinated the rest.  Such alternatives provide semi-rational explanations, but the story remains enigmatic and fails to lend itself to neat exegesis” (90).

In a moment, I will put forward a theory based on the findings of professionals who work with families coping with the trauma of alcohol abuse—families which must have resembled Gass’s own growing up—and it is a theory that can account for some of the novella’s eccentricities, especially its seemingly unresolved resolution.  First, though, it is worth looking at how the Segren family exhibits many of the characteristics of families traumatized by alcohol abuse, which adds credence to my use of the substance-abuse theory to examine this work of literary art.  Even though alcohol abuse no doubt began almost as soon as the process of fermentation was discovered, culture by culture, seeing it as a “family disease” has been a common practice for only the last twenty to thirty years.  In 1985, Stephanie Brown defined alcohol addiction as a family disease “with all family members suffering the consequences of one member’s alcoholism and all seen to play a role in maintaining the destructive interactional patterns that result from alcoholism” (qtd. in Brooks and Rice 92).  Indeed, these destructive interactional patterns could easily account for Gass’s “miserable and damaging” childhood, as characterized by H. L. Hix, who quotes Gass as saying, “For a long time I was simply emotionally unable to handle my parents’ illnesses. [. . .] I just fled. [. . .] All along one principal motivation behind my writing has been to be other than the person I am.  To cancel the consequences of the past” (2).

G. Harold Smith and his colleagues discuss various types of family structures that form around alcoholic parents, and we can see aspects of these structures in the Segren family.  The “enmeshed family,” for example, seems especially applicable as it is extremely isolated and wants little to do with outsiders:   “Within these highly self-involved families, children’s needs may be ignored because the family’s attention is focused on the parent who is abusing substances” (Smith et al. 47).  The Segren family, of course, is isolated by the very fact they live on a farm in North Dakota, but Pa’s attitude toward the Pedersens suggests that the two families have been kept apart, thus exacerbating the geography’s tendency toward isolation.  In spite of the tragic nature of the occurrence (the Pedersen kid nearly died in the blizzard and may die yet), the mother, Hed Segren, seems excited at the possibility of having company, wanting to put out coffee and fresh biscuits with elderberry jelly for Mr. Pedersen and his eldest son when they come to collect the kid.  Pa, of course, ridicules her for her intentions.

However, an even more tragic trait of the enmeshed family is the alcoholic’s tendency toward violence.  Smith and his colleagues write, “Often that parent’s behavior has to be monitored carefully to avoid negative consequences.  For example, much family effort may be expended to avoid provoking a violent reaction from a parent who is intoxicated” (47).  Clearly, all three members of Pa Segren’s household are afraid of him, and several instances of his cruel and violent nature are recounted at various points in the story, including references to his emptying a chamber-pot filled with diarrhea on Hans’s head and his destroying Jorge’s favorite picture book and dropping the pieces of torn paper in the privy.  In our very first view of Pa in the novella, Jorge is struck in the neck for waking his father to inquire where there is some whiskey with which to try to revive the nearly frozen Pedersen kid.  And poor Hed Segren is as skittish and defeated as an abused wife can be; she may even have turned to drinking, too, to cope with her miserable existence.

Because of the enmeshed family’s preoccupation with the alcohol abuser, children are often neglected and fall prey to all sorts of deprivations and depravations.  Smith and his colleagues report that sexual abuse is “common” in households where substances are abused by one or both parents (48).  In “The Pedersen Kid,” sexual abuse is not obvious, but Big Hans’s relationship with Jorge is questionable and even highly suspicious at times, showing him pornographic magazines, telling him stories about Japanese prostitutes, and even measuring the length of Jorge’s penis.  As Ripatrazone puts it, “Jorge stops short of claiming physical abuse, but the actions are grossly inappropriate, perhaps the reason why ‘pa took a dislike to Hans.’”  However, Gass may imply that Jorge—our omnisciently very limited, first-person narrator—is repressing more than he is telling as he seems fixated on penises:  the Pedersen kid’s, his father’s, his own; and he imagines the intruder’s assault on his mother as more of a sexual assault as the stranger “wav[es his gun barrel] up and down in front of ma’s face real slow and quiet” (19).

There isn’t time to go further into detail here, but there are numerous other elements of the novella that seem to reflect the experiences of someone growing up in a household traumatically affected by alcohol abuse.  For example, the creation of the narrative about the Pedersen family’s intruder, which is pulled together from mere scraps of details, may suggest a family’s inclination to invent an alternate narrative about their traumatized existence to fit into their community more easily.  Also, there are several spaces brought up in the story that have a duality about them, usually coldness versus warmth, which may suggest the duality of an alcoholic’s home that is supposed to provide familial warmth and comfort (and may even do so at times), but that also breeds hostility, mistrust, and often emotional and physical abuse.

Throughout my paper I refer to the trauma of alcohol abuse, but trauma is a subjective term.  At what point, in other words, does a really terrible situation become a genuinely traumatic one?  From the Greek for “wound,” trauma originally meant a physical wound.  Over time, and especially with the horrors of the First World War, our sense of trauma was extended to include a wound of the mind or psyche as well.  Even more recently, the definition of trauma has been expanded to include being subjected to an oppressive and reoccurring situation, like being married to an abusive or potentially abusive spouse, who may have never actually become violent, but whose constant threat of violence creates a traumatic environment.  Certainly being a member of a family with a parent who abuses alcohol or other substances constitutes a traumatic situation, and in “The Pedersen Kid” William Gass gives us one of the most poignantly accurate extended metaphors of trauma in American literature:

It’s more than a make-up; it’s more than a dream.  It’s like something you see once and it hits you so hard you never forget it even if you want to; lies, dreams, pass—this has you; it’s like something that sticks to you like burrs, burrs you try to brush off while you’re doing something else, but they never brush off, they just roll a little, and the first thing you know you ain’t doing what you set out to, you’re just trying to get them burrs off.         I know.      I got things stuck to me like that.  Everybody has.        Pretty soon you get tired of trying to pick them off. (17)

This passage illustrates the intrusive and haunting nature of trauma, its tenaciousness, its ability to disrupt your concentration, and ultimately your life—and the fact that from Hans’s perspective, everyone is traumatized, which makes sense since the novella implies that Hans is a veteran of the First World War. Moreover, this passage suggests that Pa’s drinking has, indeed, traumatized the Segren family, and perhaps especially Jorge, who has grown up with his father’s capricious personality due to the whiskey that is ubiquitous in the novella, from nearly the first page to the last.

Now for that substance-abuse theory that seems to help us to understand “The Pedersen Kid,” especially the ambiguities of its final section.

In 1979, Sharon Wegscheider identified four roles that are often played by children of alcoholics, and it seems that Jorge has assumed each of these roles at some point in “The Pedersen Kid,” with the final one casting light on the novella’s enigmatic ending.  The roles identified by Wegscheider are family hero, scapegoat, lost child, and mascot (Ackerman 52-53).  The family hero “displays behaviors that are extremely mature” (53), and this role is manifested when Jorge is given the responsibility of making sure the Pedersen kid is still alive before they begin their journey to the Pedersen farm, and especially when Jorge is given Hans’s .45-caliber pistol to load, which he then carries in his belt, even though “the gun felt like a chunk of ice against [his] belly and the barrel dug” (34).  Because of the adventure they are about to embark on, Jorge thinks, “It was like I was setting out to do something special and big—like a knight setting out—worth remembering” (32-33).  Later, Jorge wants a drink of Pa’s whiskey to warm him, claiming that he has drunk whiskey before; but the request only provokes his father’s sarcasm:  “Ain’t you growed up—a man—since yesterday!” (38).  In a truly heroic vein, Jorge dreams about confronting the Pedersens’ intruder, wrestling him to the ground and “beating the stocking cap off his head with the barrel of the gun” (33).

An only child, like Gass, Jorge also embodies the family scapegoat, who is often the target of “frustrations and confusions” and as a result may “outwardly [display …] negative behavior” (Ackerman 53).  Jorge is often ridiculed by both Pa and Hans; examples are copious in the novella.  In the scene mentioned earlier, when the whiskey bottle falls from the wagon, Jorge is forced to search for the bottle in the snow in spite of his being painfully cold already.  Frustrated at Jorge’s not finding the bottle, Pa calls him a “smart-talking snot” and threatens to hold him down under the snow until he drowns (37).  Meanwhile, Jorge’s negative behaviors are varied, and perhaps his most negative behavior comes in the hallucinatory final section and may or may not happen.  An example in the beginning of the story, though, is Jorge’s resentment of the attention being paid to the half-frozen Pedersen kid, especially by his mother.  Jorge imagines the boy is actually dead and not just near death, consequently dropping him so that his head hits the kitchen table hard (10).  In the final section of the novella, however, it seems that Pa is shot dead just outside the Pedersen house.  It may have been the intruder who shot Pa, or it may have been Jorge paying Pa back for years of cruelty and abuse.  Patricia Kane seems to lean toward the latter interpretation, thinking that Jorge has become mad by the end of the novella (90); while Nick Ripatrzone, writing in The Quarterly Conversation, believes that Jorge only wishes his father dead and does not actually shoot him.

Jorge also resembles the lost child, who suffers “the most role inconsistency” in the family of an alcoholic (Ackerman 53).  At times, Jorge tries to shield his mother from Pa’s abuse, but she also scolds Hans for “pester[ing] the boy” (19)—so when it comes to his mother, he is both a mature protector and a child who needs protection.  Even still, he imagines his mother coming to harm, and her fantasized death completes his sense of freedom from his oppressively abusive family.  But it is via metaphor that we can see Jorge’s lost child status most clearly.  In the beginning of the novella, it is, quite literally, the Pedersen kid who is lost.  In fact, the Segrens entertain the idea that the kid merely wandered off in the blizzard of his own accord, and the Pedersens will come looking for him now that the blizzard has stopped.  By the end, however, Jorge, now occupying the Pedersen farmhouse by himself, believes that he and the Pedersen kid have “been exchanged, and we were both in our new lands” (73).  And by the very end, Jorge and the Pedersen kid are more than exchanged; it is as if they are living parallel lives in their new lands.  Thus, Jorge has in essence become the novella’s original lost boy.

It is also via this exchange that we can see Jorge as the mascot, the child who “may be overly protected from the family problems” (Ackerman 53).  After Pa has been killed, Jorge takes refuge in the Pedersens’ root-cellar, waiting to be killed himself by the intruder (assuming the version of the story that there is an intruder who has killed the Pedersens and now Pa too).  After what seems a long time, the intruder stops waiting for Jorge and leaves the Pedersen house with a slam of the front door (66).  So, from this perspective, both Jorge and the Pedersen kid have been spared by the intruder, and in fact Jorge has been protected in a sense because the source of his misery—his alcoholic father—has been permanently removed from his life.

Throughout the novella, the intruder is a vague but ominous figure, with only a handful of descriptors attached to him which are repeated again and again (the black stocking cap, the yellow gloves, the green mackinaw, the gun), just as the whiskey is an object known chiefly by its fecal color, its omnipresence, and its desirability as all the Segrens (even the mother) seem to thirst for it, or at least for the power it lends tyrannical Pa.  Thus in my reading of “The Pedersen Kid” the true intruder, the true menace is the whiskey-induced alcoholism.  We note that it is en route to the Pedersen farm that whiskey, as an object, disappears from the narrative as Horse Simon shatters Pa’s bottle, which had fallen from the wagon, into the snow.  Its destruction propels Pa toward his own demise, empowering or at least enabling Jorge to overcome him in the end.  The intruder (whiskey) and his minion (Pa) destroyed, Jorge is overjoyed at the end of the novella; he is “burning up, inside and out with joy,” and joy is, in fact, the novella’s final word (79).

In addition to Wegscheider’s four roles, Norman Garmezy also coined the category of invulnerables:  “These are the children, that despite all the family problems, have not only survived, but also have grown into healthy adults” (Ackerman 53).  Garmezy estimated that about ten percent of children in homes with an alcoholic parent prove to be invulnerable.  It seems that perhaps Gass himself fits this category in that he managed to take his miserable childhood and create from it an illustrious writing and teaching career.  What will almost certainly be his last work of fiction and perhaps his last book-length publication, period, the novel Middle C, will be released March 12, and no doubt it will draw on many of the same images and themes his creative genius has tapped into for more than half a century.  I preordered the book several months ago and rest assured that I will be watching my mailbox hawkishly come the 12th.

Works Cited

Ackerman, Robert J.  Children of Alcoholics:  A Guidebook for Educators, Therapists, and Parents.  2nd ed.  Holmes Beach, FL:  Learning Publications, 1983.  Print.

Brooks, Carolyn Seval, and Kathleen Fitzgerald Rice.  Families in Recovery:  Coming Full Circle.  Baltimore, MD:  Paul H. Brookes, 1997.  Print.

Gass, William H.  “The Pedersen Kid.”  1961.  In the Heart of the Heart of the Country and Other Stories.  Boston, MA:  Nonpareil, 1981.  Print.  1-79.

Hix, H. L.  Understanding William H. Gass.  Columbia:  U of South Carolina P, 2002.  Print.

Kane, Patricia.  “The Sun Burned on the Snow:  Gass’s ‘The Pedersen Kid.’”  Critique 14.2 (1972):  89-96.  Print.

Ripatrazone, Nick.  “Let Me Make a Snowman:  John Gardner, William Gass, and ‘The Pedersen Kid.’”  The Quarterly Conversation.  Web.  15 Feb. 2013.

Saltzman, Arthur M.  The Fiction of William Gass:  The Consolation of Language.  Carbondale:  Southern Illinois UP, 1986.  Print.

Smith, G. Harold, et al.  Children, Families, and Substance Abuse:  Challenges for Changing Educational and Social Outcomes.  Baltimore, MD:  Paul. H. Brookes, 1995.  Print.