William Kittredge – a note on Achilles in South Dakota


William Kittredge
A Note on ‘Achilles in South Dakota’

In 1969 I lucked into a job teaching fiction writing at the University of Montana. A young man from the cowhand boondocks of Oregon, I was surprised by many things in Missoula. One of them was the presence of men back from violent civilian careers in the jungles of southeastern Asia. A couple of them became close friends.
The spring of 1973 I was preparing to spend a year at Stanford with a Stegner Fellowship. Before going, I wrote a story called “The Man Who Loved Buzzards.” It focused on the great Pondicherry vultures that feed on the bodies of deceased humans in districts of India. The central character, based on one of my friends, revered the idea of those buzzards because they in part justified his life by doing some of the same work — cleaning up the mess. The Carolina Quarterly printed the story in 1974. In 1977 it was reprinted in my first book, The Van Gogh Field and Other Stories, from the University of Missouri Press.
Thirty-five years later, the summer of 2012, I decided that a story named after a metaphor, vultures, was too distant from the thrust of a narrative which is concerned with wounding and recovery. I recalled a terrific book called Achilles in Vietnam, about the emotional damage experienced when we get accustomed to solving problems with violence, and about bringing a damaged self back home for healing. Also, I remembered the Iliad and the final line in the prose translation I’d read in 1952: “Thus they celebrated the funeral games of Hector breaker of horses.”
People I grew up with in Oregon were also breakers of horses. And sometimes they demonstrated an addiction to violence. This re-imagined story is dedicated to citizens I knew in that childhood and to those recovering warriors who so long ago befriended me in Missoula. And to the complexities of staying peaceable.

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