The Red Convertible is a short story told by Lyman about his life and the fallout his brother had after coming home from war. Lyman and his family live on an Indian reservation. Lyman is a young entrepreneur, always finding ways to make money, and has a hard work ethic. He does odd jobs until he lands a job washing dishes and eventually comes to own the Joliet Café at just 16 years old. When the restaurant blows over in a hurricane, Lyman and his brother pool their money together to purchase a red convertible. They drive the red convertible all over until one day they pick a girl up named Susy and live with her family in a tent for some time. After they leave Susy, Henry is drafted into the Vietnam War. When Henry comes back, it is very apparent he has changed. He is no longer friendly and laughing, but “jumpy and mean.” Unsure how to get Henry to change back to his old self, Lyman comes up with the idea to damage the convertible so that Henry will pick fixing it up as a hobby. The plan works for a while as Henry fixes the car. One day, Henry asks Lyman to drive with him to the Red River. Here Lyman finally confronts Henry about his change, and Henry finally breaks down and comes out of his shell, or so it seems. Henry eventually goes crazy and jumps into the river and drowns. Lyman lets the red convertible drive itself into the river behind Henry.
Some of this story had, yet again, a very transcendental vibe to it. When Lyman describes the willows, he says, “…I lay under those trees and it was comfortable…The branches bent down aall around me like a tent or a stable.” Also, when Lyman and his brother live with Susy, he says, “You might doze off…like an animal in nature.” Lyman feels connected with nature in both of these examples.
Speaking of Susy, I think she was a hippy, which goes somewhat along with the transcendental feel. Her act of hitchhiking and go-with-the-flow attitude represents this. Also, her long hair solidified the fact that she was a hippy; an extreme hippy. I don’t think foil is the right word, but she is an important character for Henry because she was probably against the war since she was a hippy, but Henry goes anyways. Henry lets her jump on his shoulders because he “…always wondered what it was like to have long pretty hair…” This carefree attitude Susy brought out in him changed dramatically after he returned from war.
When Lyman says, “Some people hang on to details when they travel, but we didn’t let them bother us and just lived our everyday lives here to there.” Lyman and his brother are living freely in the moment. Life is easy and they don’t have much stress. This is the complete opposite when Henry comes back from war. He is in a constant agitated and distraught state.
Henry definitely suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. There are several examples of this. The one that sticks out the most in my mind is when he bit his lip one night at dinner and just continued to eat his bloody food. No one in his family said anything to him because they aren’t sure how to deal with it. PTSD probably wasn’t even a condition back then. I think commenting on PTSD Erdrich’s main point of the story, or at least bringing attention to it.
Did Henry commit suicide in the end, or just lose his mind, or both? I think Henry just lost his mind. There are a lot of times in the story when Henry seems like he has flashbacks to the war which put him in his crazy state of mind. For instance, when Lyman shakes Henry, Henry’s “face was totally white and hard. Then it broke…all of a sudden.” Also, when Lyman calls Henry crazy, Henry “…looks as though he will take this wrong at first. His face twists, then clears, and he jumps up on his feet.” It’s like something inside Henry snaps in both examples.
Henry is terrorized by the war. If not evidenced by his actions, it is evidenced by his smile. When Bonita takes the picture of the two boys, Henry smiles an eerie smile. “There are two shadows curved like little hooks around the ends of his smile.” Henry’s smile is drawn into the shadows. The way it’s twisted and shadowed allows you to see the pain, hurt, and distress in Henry. It’s sad. The smile Henry smiles is no smile at all, but a forced representation of the hollow shell he now is.