Friday, October 21, 2005

Tom Drury's "Path Lights"

Path Lights is a short story by Tom Drury published in The New Yorker (Oct. 17, 2005). Drury is a master at achieving profluence in quiet stories, never resorting to high drama, and this one is a good example of how he does it.

Although his stories are low-key (some might say nothing much ever happens), Drury successfully creates and sustains tension by introducing change, or the threat of change, to the lives of his characters.

"Path Lights" begins: "One day, a bottle almost hits us. It's a brown quart bottle that falls out of the sky. We are in the arroyo, the dogs and me, walking." When I read this, I flinch involuntarily. I ready myself for a fight, or some other confrontation. This threat, this falling bottle, sets up expectations, but as in many Drury stories, the expectations do not come to fruition. Instead, the mild-mannered narrator, realizing that the bottle must have come from the bridge above, accepts that the thrower of the bottle probably had no idea that anyone was walking below, and meant him no harm. He knows that he might have done the same thing.

Later, we meet the narrator's wife, in bed with a headache. We worry about her (sense the threat), and the narrator wins our approval with gentle ministrations. We expect that her illness will lead to something worse; but she recovers promptly.

Later yet, one of the dogs escapes its leash and disappears. Yet another threat. But the narrator locates and corrals the dog atop a neighbor's house without incident.

In addition to these minor threats, the story's profluence is built on the oldest technique in the book: mystery. In fact, the story can be seen as a lighthearted poke at the mystery genre, as the narrator envisions himself as clever sleuth, setting out to determine the identity of the bottle thrower. And the simple mystery works: who threw the bottle, and why?

In addition, the narrator earns money by providing the voice work for audio mystery novels, reinforcing the mystery theme. Finally, the narrator's wife works for a mysterious agency involved with sending a probe to Mars, a top-secret mission that she is not allowed to speak about.

So, the mysteries, large and small, are layered ingeniously to always keep the reader wondering about something.

On a side note, Drury uses a recurring image in this story of things in flight or on the verge of flight. The bottle flying from the bridge; the probe flying to Mars (named Phaethon, after the character in Greek mythology, a mortal who drove the sun god's chariot and was killed by Zeus for his recklessness); the beagle climbing atop the neighbor's house. Does this image pattern have any deep meaning?


Profluence: flow, the tendency to move forward, a steady progression. I've never really seen this word used except in the context of writing fiction. In particular, John Gardner writes of it in his book, The Art of Fiction. Any story, to be satisfying, must be profluent.

Profluence is a necessary part of any narrative, fiction or non-fiction, because all narrative (as opposed to essay and most non-fiction) contains an embedded timeline; whether or not it proceeds chronologically, a narrative describes a series of related events related, and these events move through time.

Another way of saying this is that time elapses during a story, and this happens both at the micro level and the macro level. The best stories, whether genre or literary, drag the reader along not just from event to event, but from sentence to sentence and from phrase to phrase.

How this happens at the macro level is easy to see: this thing happens and then that thing happens. It's a plot summary. At the micro level it's slightly trickier, but it all depends on the verbs.

For example.

"The dog was in the habit of eating his daily meal in the late afternoon." : Describes a habitual action. No time elapses in this sentence.

"The dog was eating his bowl of kibble." : not habitual, but still, no time elapses. This sentence reduces the act of eating to a static event, a moment frozen in time.

"The dog ate his food." : slightly better. This could have the same meaning as the previous example, but it could mean that the dog ate the entire bowl, implying that some time has elapsed, although the duration is indefinite.

"The dog approached his bowl, sniffed the unfamiliar kibble, and grudgingly took a piece into his mouth." : this is real-time. The act described takes about as long as the time it takes to read the sentence (or at least the reader can imagine the scene with enough specificity to know how long it takes).

Good writing carefully modulates the flow of time in this way, moving back and forth from real-time to more static description, but never letting things bog down for long.