‘The Pedersen Kid’ by William H. Gass

Chosen by Daniel Davis Wood

William H. Gass once said he wrote ‘The Pedersen Kid’ “to entertain a toothache”. But his casual levity is a sleight-of-hand, a chicanery that betrays none of the sinister things at the heart of the story. Set in the American Midwest in deepest winter, in a rural clearing distinguished only by a pair of farmhouses, what makes ‘The Pedersen Kid’ so sinister is its smothering snow. The snow abducts and oppresses. It doesn’t just drift or fall; it “curl[s] around” and “crawl[s] over” bodies, and it obliterates all features of the terrain until “[t]here wasn’t anything around. There wasn’t anything: a tree or a stick or a rock whipped bare”. The snow, here, is an impersonal force of nature whose power is subtraction, the erasure of the world, and it becomes all the more sinister when the few inhabitants of this wasteland abuse it for personal ends—to conceal their secrets, their ill intentions, and their whereabouts.

Usually with Gass, the artistry lies in the exuberance of the language. In ‘The Pedersen Kid’, though, it’s more to be found in the quite atypical tone: muted, indeed anodyne, in a way that suggests cold calculations behind each and every line. There’s a good deal of action, appropriately seasonal—a child returns from the dead (maybe) to offer a sort of salvation—but what abides, finally, is the chilling composure of the sentences with which Gass takes the measure of human souls as denuded as the snowscape around them.

First published in MSS, 1961. Collected in In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, HarperCollins, 1968, and The William H Gass Reader, Penguin Random House, 2018. * Daniel Davis Wood is a writer based in Scotland. His début novel, Blood and Bone, won the Viva La Novella Prize in his native Australia, and his follow-up, At the Edge of the Solid World, was published to acclaim in 2020. He also runs Splice (www.ThisIsSplice.co.uk), a small press focusing on adventurous, unconventional literature. You can read his other contributions to A Personal Anthology here.

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