Sunday, February 19, 2006

The Obligatory Downer

Last night I read "Treasure," a story by Susan Perabo in the Winter 2005 edition of the Missouri Review. This is the story of a girl, Katie, who almost witnesses the crash of United Airlines Flight 93, the plane that went down on 9/11 in Somerset County, Pennsylvania. She "almost" witnesses it because she was supposed to be on the field with her marching band, over which the doomed airplane passed as it fell; but she was inside dealing with an equipment malfunction (no, a split reed, not that other thing). Anyway, she spends much of the rest of the story pretending that she did, in fact, witness the crash.

This story line is twined around a fairly generic, yet engaging, story of unrequited teenage love. Katie worships the boy next door (Dean), her best friend when they were younger, but now a little too cool for her. Katie babysits Dean's younger brother in order to be as near the older boy as possible. In the story's big scene, the younger boy (Toby, who is 10) disappears while Katie naps. Dean and Katie go in pursuit; Katie correctly intuits that he is hunting in a wooded area where "treasure" is rumored to be. The "treasure" is supposed to be jewelry from the plane crash: rings, watches, etc., that the search parties missed. Of course, the idea is ludicrous. Toby and his friends find a bobby pin, and are happy to have it.

The story moves well, is written in flawless prose, has adequate measures of humor and pathos and honesty. But then, in the big scene, where Katy is finally alone with her beloved Dean, in the woods, in the dark, everything falls apart. Dean kisses Katie, but he has been drinking; he's rough, the taste of beer in his mouth makes her gag, etc. Her illusions are destroyed.

There's really no reason for this to happen. I may be an old romantic, but this ruined the story for me. It is a classic example of The Obligatory Downer, the writer's refusal to permit a happy, or at least not depressing, ending because, I say, the author fears being ridiculed as a romantic. She must stick to "reality", which means that no one ever gets what they want; our dreams are never fulfilled, etc. Sure, that's usually true, but so what? Not to be too harsh, because Perabo is a fine writer, but this, to me, signals a timidity, a reluctance to write boldly, and also a certain finger-wagging attitude toward one's characters, not rising to the level of scorn, but certainly to parental disappointment. You should know better, the writer says, than to get your hopes up; now give me your hand for slapping.

But the real problem with this turn of events, from a craft perspective, is that it was so predictable. Perabo established the question: Will Katie get Dean? As with any such question at the heart of a story, there are four answers: Yes, No, Maybe, and Something Else. Yes and No almost ALWAYS result in boring, predictable resolutions; the reader always anticipates those two choices. They may root for one or the other, but what they really want is to be happily surprised, or left in an ambiguous state (the Maybe of the four answers). You can argue that the answer is here is both Yes and No; she gets him but finds out she doesn't want him after all. Sometimes that works--see my discussion of John Cheever's "Swimmers"; and maybe it works here for many readers. But it left me feeling slightly annoyed. Ultimately, the answer to 'Will Katie get Dean?' is still No.

That fourth thing, that Something Else, make a story great. I can't define what the Something Else should have been here, of course, but I wish Susan Perabo had.