At the center of “The Red Convertible” is the relationship between Lyman and Henry. Lyman’s motivation for telling the story is to embrace and preserve his brother’s memory.
Because the story is told from Lyman’s point of view, the reader has no direct insight into Henry’s thoughts and feelings. His words and actions, however, indicate that he loved his brother very much and valued their relationship. When he prepared to leave to serve in the Vietnam War, he wanted to give his younger brother the car that had brought them so much happiness. Presumably, he did not know whether he would survive, and he wanted his brother to become more independent. This may also explain the infrequency of his letters home. After he came home from the war, he was a different man. When Lyman intentionally damaged the car so that Henry would have to fix it, Henry understood what Lyman was trying to do for him. Rather than respond with anger or resentment, he fixed the car so that Lyman would have it. That Henry apparently committed suicide when he was alone with Lyman suggests that Lyman was the only person Henry truly trusted and the only person with whom he was willing to share this tragic moment.
Initially, Henry is seen as an easygoing, funny, carefree young man. After spending three years fighting in Vietnam, however, he was a very different person. Describing Henry after the war, Lyman remarks:
“When he came home … Henry was very different, and I’ll say this: the change was no good. You could hardly expect him to change for the better, I know. B ut he was quiet, so quiet, and never comfortable sitting still anywhere but always up and moving around. … He’d always had a joke… and now you couldn’t get him to laugh, or when he did it was more the sound of a man choking, a sound that stopped up the throats of other people around him. They got to leaving him alone most of the time, and I didn’t blame them. It was a fact: Henry was jumpy and mean.”
Henry was like many veterans in that he was emotionally detached, unwilling to talk about his experiences and uncertain about how to function at home. What is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder was not fully understood at the time. Lyman comments that his brother spent three years fighting in the war, adding, ‘ ‘By then I guess the whole war was solved in the government’s mind, but for him it would keep on going.” Rather than seek ways to start a new life for himself, Henry chose to stagnate, watching television and keeping to himself. While his family loved him very much, they were unequipped to cope with Henry’s problems. Although he seemed to be improving when he finished fixing the car, this lighter mood was temporary—or perhaps even feigned. The anguish bottled up inside him eventually destroyed him.
Thomas E. Barden – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 14, Louise Erdrich, Published by Gale Cengage Learning.