JULIE HAYDEN’S ONE AND ONLY book, The Lists of the Past, was released 36 years ago this summer by Viking Press. Ten of its stories were originally published in the pages of the New Yorker, where Hayden worked for 16 years before her death at age 42.
I discovered Hayden while driving with my husband from Los Angeles to our home in Austin, Texas. For the road trip, I had downloaded multiple podcasts, including several fiction programs from the New Yorker. Along a barren stretch of Highway 10 in southeast Arizona, we listened to Lorrie Moore read Hayden’s story “Day-Old Baby Rats.” The story follows a tormented woman as she wanders the streets and subways of Manhattan, through stores and other public spaces, and finally through the heavy doors of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. In the darkness of a confessional, while sipping Scotch from a flask, she tries to ask a priest for help. A slightly older and more broken-down version of Sylvia Plath’s Esther Greenwood, Hayden’s nameless protagonist embodies the acute loneliness of living in Manhattan — how the distorted lens of irrational fears and past traumas can transform the city into a dangerous landscape, seemingly impossible to navigate.
By the time the story was over, my husband and I had exited the highway and parked outside a diner. Only a few cars were in the lot, which was on a hill overlooking distant mountains. It was an odd and wonderful setting in which to listen to a story that so fully took me back to New York City — where at times during my early twenties I had experienced similar loneliness and intoxication. Over burgers and fries, my husband and I talked about the emotional power and mastery of the story and how it reminded us of our lost, younger selves. Neither of us could believe that we had never heard of this extraordinary writer.
Returning home, I learned that the book was out of print (and that first editions fetch as much as $240), but was able to locate a copy of The Lists of the Past through the interlibrary loan system of my public library. Lists of the Past is divided into two sections: The first, “Brief Lives,” tell stories that range from childhood memories during wartime to unrequited affairs of the heart. In “Walking with Charlie,” a woman takes her seventeen-month-old nephew to Central Park:
I feel as though all my life I have been traveling toward this spot, to wait beside this baby at the vortex of his joy. In the spooky silvery light, everything is a clue. There are clues all around me, but I cannot interpret them. I cannot even distinguish the mystery.
In Hayden’s careful prose, indelible loss and the opposition of life’s natural beauty are closely hemmed together.
The second half of the collection, titled “Lists of the Past,” features a series of interconnected stories about a family and the death of its patriarch. Domestic lists jotted down by the father supply a haunting undercurrent throughout ...read more