The 'Monsieur les Deux Chapeaux' in this week's Alice Munro story is the brother of a school teacher. He's so dubbed by a class of French students as he's seen mowing the school lawns wearing a rather eccentric get up.
"Ross was wearing two hats. One was the green-and-white peaked cap he had got last summer at the feed store, and the other one, on top, was the old floppy hat of pinkish straw that their mother wore in the garden."
It's obvious that Colin is protective of his younger brother who is perhaps mentally challenged (the school principal calls him "independent") yet skilled mechanically. Ross spends a great deal of time at Colin's home, since he has a house and yard large enough to accommodate the car he's working on--transplanting a new motor into the body of an old car.
Much of the story is taken up with setting the scene and forming the various characters--brothers Colin and Ross, their mother Sylvia and her boyfriend, Colins' wife Glenna and their daughter Lynnette, and Glenna's friend (the French teacher), Nancy. It feels sometimes as though not a lot happens in an Alice Munro story, yet by the end you feel like you've somehow been intimately involved with these characters--lived inside their heads for a while and know them or people like them. She slowly builds up to an epiphany of sorts, usually reached by way of some past occurrence that throws light on the characters actions and behavior.
Sorry this passage is a bit long, but I loved it for the strong visual it gives. Reading it I feel like a fly on the wall--and just what sort of image do you get of Sylvia and Ross?
"And the house--the same Insul-brick-covered cottage Sylvia and Ross and Colin had always lived in--was so full of furniture and junk some rooms had turned into passageways. Most surfaces were piled high with magazines, newspapers, plastic and paper bags, catalogues, circulars, and fliers for sales that had come and gone, in some cases for businesses that had folded and products that had disappeared from the market. In any ashtray or ornamental dish you might find a button or two, keys, cutout coupons promising ten cents off, an earring, a cold capsule still in its plastic wrap, a vitamin pill turning to powder, a mascara brush, a broken clothespin. And Sylvia's cupboards were full of all kinds of cleaning fluids and polishes--not the regular kind bought in stores, but products supposedly of unique and dazzling effectiveness, signed for at parties. She was kept broke paying for all the things she had signed for at parties--cosmetics, pots and pans, baking utensils, plastic bowls. She loved giving and going to those parties, also bridal showers and baby showers, and goodbye showers for her co-workers leaving the hospital. Here in these deeply cluttered rooms, she had dispensed, on her own, a great deal of careless, hopeful hospitality."
Ross has a good relationship with his brother and Glenna, and they in turn show him a great deal of affection, but he's an unusual man given to moments of unpredictability. In school he had such a crush on a classmate that she had to not only to stop playing basketball, she took to hiding in the girls' bathroom and eventually had to change schools. He once sat on a piece of pie he had been eating during class when the teacher yelled at him.
"'I didn't do it to be funny!' Ross told Glenna. 'I just couldn't think what to do with the pie but stick it underneath me'."
It's at a family picnic as reminiscences of the time Colin "shot Ross dead" does the reader understand just how closely interlinked the lives are of the two brothers. How much Colin will has had to and will have to continue looking after Ross.
"Monsieur les Deux Chapeaux" is a quietly revealing sort of story--seemingly placid on the surface but always with Munro, lots going on underneath.
Next up is "Miles City, Montana". I'm reading along with Buried in Print who has been methodically working through all of Munro's short stories. Anyone who's like to join in is most welcome to. If you've not yet read Alice Munro, she's a really marvelous short story writer and her work is well worth exploring.