Thursday, April 27, 2006

Strike That

Yesterday I wrote that all the Antonya Nelson stories I've read are relationship stories. I was forgetting the first Nelson story I ever read, "Strike Anywhere," which appeared in Issue 9 of failbetter and was later collected in The Story Behind the Story, edited by Peter Turchi and Andrea Barrett, and Some Fun, Nelson's latest collection. In The Story Behind the Story, the author of each story has added a note explaining the story's origin.

This story is pure comedy. Over at StoryGlossia, the April 25 post asks if "Strike Anywhere" really qualifies as a story. It lacks certain elements that we normally look for, such as a clear moment of crisis, a permanent change in the world of the protagonist, and so on. But to paraphrase Flannery O'Connor, comedy has its own logic; it either works or it doesn't. And this story definitely works.

In The Story Behind the Story, Nelson explains that the story arose in part from a discussion with a student who loved the irony of O. Henry. Nelson said she derided the kind of irony seen in "The Gift of the Magi" as child's play. I'm going from memory, but I think she called it "shallow irony" as opposed to "deep irony." The student was unswayed, however, taking the position that such irony can give a story a satisfying and memorable shape, like a little box that you can hold in your hand and admire. So Nelson took this as a challenge to write her own ironic tale.

In "Strike Anywhere," a young boy, Ivan, accompanies his father, who has been uncharacteristically sober for three months, to buy a box of matches and lighter fluid for a family barbecue, planned to celebrate the advent of spring. The father, however, has planned his own celebration, and stops at a bar called The White Front. Ivan waits in the truck while the father goes inside. The narrative alternates between the father in the bar, who orders a "Jack and a Bud back" from a bartender named Frozene (a name that I truly envy), and Ivan, who sits in the truck playing with the box of matches.

The father starts talking to the hard-drinking young second wife of the local jeweler, a woman who comes to the bar every day with a twenty-dollar bill and doesn't leave until it's exhausted. When she goes to the bathroom, he sees that she is pregnant, and berates her for drinking while in "the family way." This is the substance of the bar thread. Various secondary characters drift through the scene: some migrant workers, a trio of teachers, a crazy guy with a menagerie of pets.

Outside, Ivan, having discovered a taste for matchheads, has been putting matches in his mouth until the coating dissolves and then using the denuded sticks to build a house on the dashboard. He has his own parade of supporting cast members: a gang of girls who are friends of his sister, a woman pushing a stroller, and finally a more menacing figure:
Beside The White Front, in the dark entryway of the defunct wedding dress shop, a shadowy shape suddenly began moving.... The moving shadow emerging from between the dress windows assumed a human form, pale face first and then animate body, shocking, like a broken down groom stepping out of the ruined wedding party....

Ivan watched wide-eyed as the man came forward, lurching, wavering, like a marionette manipulated by a child, one moment upright, the next heaping limp on the sidewalk, where a high school couple had to veer around his flung, booted, foot.
Ivan recognizes the man as Kermit Boyer, one of the town drunks. Boyer sees Ivan and staggers across the street to the truck:
Kermit reached the truck's hood and melted onto it, sliding along the fender, grabbing onto the side mirror of the passenger door like a handle. His fingers were brown, crazy with scratches and scabs. His face was like a large rotten apple.

"Little boy," said Kermit Boyer, rapping with his free hand against the glass.

Ivan scooted to his father's side of the truck, beneath the steering wheel. His fingers trembled on the horn, ready to alert the people in the street, who would turn then and rescue him from his nightmare, this desperate drunken figure....

In the locked truck, in the oncoming dark, Ivan's fear paralyzed him, Kermit's appearance, its suddenness, its ugly publicness, a person crawling like an animal on the sidewalk, draped like dirty laundry on his father's vehicle. . .

"Little boy," Kermit Boyer repeated, his fingertips now inside the passenger window, chapped lips at the crack. A missing tooth, Ivan noticed, canine incisor like his own, whiskers, loose jowls, eyes loopy. "Little boy, don't do that," he said, his breath powerfully upon Ivan, a wave of sour ferment. "Don't eat the matches, boy," he said, "Good lord, son, that's poison!"

The stick in Ivan's mouth stopped. And then Kermit abruptly disappeared, dropped like a felled deer, unstrung puppet, onto the cooling pavement beside the truck.
That's how the story ends, with a warning against self-poisoning from an expert on the subject. There's no resolution of the conflict in the bar, or of the fight that awaits at home. Instead, Nelson has tied a bow around her ironic box and presented it for our admiration.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Some More Fun

I'm still reading through Antonya Nelson's collection, Some Fun. Five of the seven stories (there's also a novella) are available online, including "Rear View" (see "Extra Credit for Marmots"), and "Strike Anywhere," which appeared at, source of many fine interviews in addition to online fiction. Also, three of the stories in this collection have appeared in The New Yorker: "Dick," "Only a Thing," (not online) and "Eminent Domain."

I was reading "Eminent Domain" earlier today (which, I must say, is a weak title for this story), trying to figure out what makes it tick, and it took me a minute to recognize it for what it is: a love story. Or, perhaps more accurately, a relationship story. No big surprise there, because all of Nelson's stories (the ones I've read, anyway) are relationship stories of some sort.

But more so than her other short fiction, which tends to dwell on infidelity, "Eminent Domain" fits a traditional love story model:

  • Boy sees girl

  • Boy meets girl

  • Boy buys girl dinner

  • Boy dates girl repeatedly; their relationship progresses

  • Boy and girl sleep together

  • Boy and girl break up

  • Boy and girl reunite briefly and then break up for good, or they live happily ever after

  • Now don't tell me you don't have anything to write about. Don't talk to me about plot. You can write stories based on that plot for the rest of your life, with or without variations. Just try to bring a little freshness to the table, if you can.

    How does Nelson freshen the old tale up? Here's the "Boy sees girl" part (from the version in Some Fun, a little different from the online version):
    What caught Paolo’s attention was the smile, teeth extravagantly white and large, orthodontically flawless. Expensive maintenance in the mouth of a homeless woman. Around the smile was a pale, animated face, around that a corona of wild purple hair. The owner of this gleeful mouth was drunk, her flame of a head swaying on the thin stick of her body, lit at nine in the morning on the front stoop of a condemned Baptist church. Its facade alone remained. The vast skirt of the steps fronted the building the way the smile did the woman's face: behind was a pile of rubble, scatter of boards and bricks and glass, a frightening exploded emptiness.
    Not only does Nelson drop a corkscrewing twist on Boy Sees Girl, she also tackles one of the hoariest cliches in amateur fiction--the homeless character. Of course, this is no ordinary homeless woman, and that, of course, is the whole point.

    Tuesday, April 25, 2006

    Groundhog Day, Martin Amis Style

    My April 24th issue of The New Yorker finally arrived in the mail with Martin Amis's story, "The Last Days of Muhammad Atta." It's easy to imagine why this is not on-line, given the reaction of certain groups to those anti-Islamic editorial cartoons in the recent past.

    In particular, the story describes the life of Atta on the morning of September 11, 2001, the day on which Atta piloted an airplane into the World Trade Center. Just the other day, someone asked Are We Ready? Are we ready for fiction (technically, the question pertained to movies) about 9/11?

    Amis and The New Yorker have answered this question with a bold "Yes."

    The next question is, What Form Will This 9/11 Fiction Take? Will it be insightful and even-handed? Should a story about Atta portray him as a reasonable human being, serving his religion with the ultimate sacrifice? Or should Atta be drawn as a hapless soldier, trapped into committing suicide by his sacred vows of loyalty and honor?

    Well... no. No more than Hitler has been reimagined as a misunderstood and under-appreciated water-colorist who only wanted the best for his pastel people.

    Instead, Amis indulges our baser instincts. Unable to exact any meaningful vengeance on the corporeal Atta, Amis treats the fictional Atta to a host of plagues. We are told that Atta hasn't had a bowel movement since May, and is as taut-bellied as a pregnant woman; that his intestinal blockage results in bile rising repeatedly to the back of his throat, causing him constant nausea; that he has headaches, multiple simultaneous headaches, like snakes fighting inside his skull; that shaving causes him the worst distress of all, because, beardless, he sees how unimaginably hideous his face is. He also cuts his nose and lip with the razor.

    In addition to his physical discomfort, the fictional Atta is deprived of the spiritual comfort of religion. He is perpetrating this crime, Amis tells us, not because of a love for Islam, but purely for a love of death. He wants to escape the earth not because he believes that he will be rewarded with seventy virgins, but because it will end his physical pain, and also because it will cause, he believes, an unending cycle of death and war.

    Does Atta get his wish? I'll leave the ending for you, if my title hasn't already given away too much.

    Monday, April 24, 2006

    William Trevor, Back in the Saddle

    This week at the New Yorker is "An Afternoon," by William Trevor, the prolific and widely honored Irish fictionist. I recently bought Trevor's collected short stories, a volume of over 1200 pages, and am working my way through it (along with half a dozen other collections). Mr. Trevor was born in 1928, started writing full-time in 1965, and apparently doesn't intend to stop before it's mandatory.

    "An Afternoon" is the tense tale of a girl, Jasmin, who goes to a bus stop to meet a man she talked with on a chat line. "Jasmin" is a name she has given herself, her improvement over "Angie." Jasmin's mother is cheating on her husband, with whom she cheated on Jasmin's father. The mother is, perhaps, not the best role model.

    Trevor has chosen an omniscient pov. The story begins:
    Someone had left a comic paper on the seat near where he sat and he read the strips while he waited. All the way to the bus station he had hurried because he liked being early for things. He liked to take his time, to settle himself, and he did so now. He knew she’d come.

    Jasmin knew he was going to be different, no way he couldn’t be; no way he’d be wearing a baseball cap backward over a No. 1 cut, or be gawky like Lukie Giggs, or make the clucking noise that Darren Finn made when he was trying to get a word out. She couldn’t have guessed, all she knew was he wouldn’t be like them. Could be he’d put you in mind of the Raw Deal drummer, whatever his name was, or of Al in "Doc Martin." But the boy at the bus station wasn’t like either. And he wasn’t a boy, not for a minute.
    We're never sure of Jasmin's age, although she says sixteen and later seventeen, then fifteen; the man, who tells her his name is Clive, estimates she could be as young as twelve. Clive says he is twenty-nine, but Jasmin thinks he is older, mid-thirties. We see quickly that we are witnessing an all too-common 21st-century parental nightmare: the adolescent girl seduced on-line (in this case, on a telephone line) by a pedophile.

    Omniscience is a tactic that creates some distance from the characters, but which also gives Trevor license to show a great deal through the thoughts of the characters. This can be criticized as taking the easy way out; it's much easier to look inside a character's head than to dramatize what he's thinking or planning. Looking back on this story, I'm not sure that we ever really need to see inside Clive's thoughts, because Trevor provides us with all the creepy detail we need to figure it out on our own (as if the age difference isn't enough). Clive constantly invokes Jasmin's name, tells her she's pretty, wins a necklace for her, and on and on, eventually persuading her to go with him to his home, but not before stopping to have a drink. However, the occasional forays into Clive's mind arguably raise the level of menace, and the effect of this story is pure tension. We peek through our fingers, straining to see what will happen next.

    Thursday, April 20, 2006

    Body Parts

    This month's StoryGlossia brings us Benjamin Percy's short story "The Hand." This is the tale of a meek man whose life is changed when he finds a talismanic object--in this case a prosthetic hand--lying on the sidewalk. It's a familiar story form; if you don't think so, substitute "magic lantern" for "prosthetic hand" and "beach" for sidewalk. As in all such stories, the object is embued with magical properties (whether real or imagined) and changes the protagonist's life, perhaps for the better, perhaps not.

    At just over 1500 words, the story is slight. It reads like a fairy tale, largely because of the genie-in-a-bottle premise, but also because of the wide-eyed, naive voice of the first-person narrator, notable for its simple syntax and its scarcity of contractions. The story begins:
    I found it last week. At first I mistook it for a glove. But it was a hand – a prosthetic hand – just lying there on the sidewalk. When I bent over to get a better look at it, I heard a woman say, “Watch out. That man is going to be sick.”

    “No,” I said, my voice coming out angrier than I intended. “I’m not going to be sick.”
    A crowd gathers, and the narrator picks up the hand. "I had, after all, found it. If it belonged to anyone it belonged to me," he says. An "important-looking man in a business suit" appears and starts asking questions, but the narrator tucks the hand in his jacket and hurries away.

    Up to this point in the story, the telling has been quite superficial. We have a childish narrator playing finders-keepers, relating his story (for the most part) in the language of a child, describing the other characters as stick figures. We might be listening to a grade-schooler's anecdote. But now Percy zooms the camera in and adds a touch of verisimilitude:
    Someone had stepped on the hand, leaving behind the tan imprint of a waffle sole. And there was some chewing gum and a cigarette butt stuck to it. I splashed some soap in the sink and filled it with water and washed the hand along with a few cereal bowls glazed with old milk.
    The imprint of the shoe sole, the cigarette butt, the chewing gum: these are gritty details that make us feel that we're in a real place, with a real person. And there's my favorite detail in that paragraph, the "cereal bowls glazed with old milk." More gritty detail, but also detail that underscores the childish nature of the narrator.

    The narrator makes an unsuccessful effort to find the hand's owner (by going to the mall and looking for one-handed people; another childlike approach to a problem), but becomes more "attached" to the hand, carrying it with him everywhere. He buys a shirt with extra-long sleeves, and is surprised when his wife, with whom he has chilly relations, compliments him. This is the first indication of the hand's "powers."

    And then the hand becomes assertive:
    I don’t normally do this sort of thing, but yesterday I touched a woman. Specifically her rear end. I am not proud of this, and I don’t really know how to explain it except that I felt compelled to touch her, as if I didn’t have a choice. As if the hand wanted it to happen....
    Here is the weird thing. Here is the thing I can’t get out of my head. She looked up, surprised, bewildered, and then smiled shyly, as if I had complimented her hairdo. This was an extraordinary moment for me. Normally women seem furious even when I look at them, whereas she seemed…empowered, somehow.
    The story ends with the narrator in bed with his wife. Here Percy shifts from past tense to present tense, a little technique for heightening the tension. He puts the hand under his pillow (something a child might do with a lost tooth), and things turn a little creepy:
    Sometime during the night I wake up to find the hand has crept from beneath its hiding place. It hovers above Emily, trembling, like some vulture riding an updraft. Then it descends.... At first she goes stiff, uncertain, but when the hand climbs up her waist, sliding up and down the dip of her hip, she kind of giggles and sighs and scoots her butt back until it touches me. The hand, encouraged, continues to explore her body, stroking her cheek, petting her hair. She breathes heavily. And though at first I don’t know whether to feel jealous or horrified or elated, I decide to feel good. I decide to let the hand take me where it wants to go.
    This story evokes numerous associations for me, from a severed hand crawling across the floor in any number of bad horror movies to The Fourth Hand, by John Irving, in which the protagonist receives the first hand transplant (and in which the hand has a "mind of its own"). Percy's protagonist also reminds me of the timid narrator in Tobias Wolff's "Next Door," a story unforgettable for its use of Florida as a euphemism for part of the male anatomy. But more than anything, the flat characters, the fairy-tale quality of the narrative, and (of course) the manufactured hand itself remind me of a puppet show, with the prosthetic hand as the bewitched marionette that comes to life and entrances the puppeteer.

    Yet, despite its familiarity, because of the carefully crafted voice and the well-chosen details that so ingeniously suit Percy's purpose, the story works. Percy's writing always evokes the juvenile; Mississippi Review published a story of his in which the narrator rants about his penis, as though it is some newly discovered outcropping on his bodily world. Perhaps with "The Hand" Percy has found a more tasteful body part upon which to dwell.

    Wednesday, April 19, 2006

    When Nothing Moves but Hope

    When I first read Tobias Wolff's collection, Back in the World, the story that most viscerally affected me was "Desert Breakdown, 1968," a long story about a young family driving across the California desert toward Los Angeles, where the husband plans to look for work.

    I admire this story more each time I reread it. It begins:
    Krystal was asleep when they crossed the Colorado. Mark had promised to stop for some pictures, but when the moment came he looked over at her and drove on. Krystal's face was puffy from the heat blowing into the car. Her hair, cut short for summer, hung damp against her forehead. Only a few strands lifted in the breeze. She had her hands folded over her belly and that made her look even more pregnant than she was.
    After the thumping, alliterative rhythm of the first sentence, reminiscent of tires rolling over expansion joints on a highway, we meet Mark, the husband, already in the act of breaking a promise to his pregnant wife. In the back seat lies Hans, their toddling son.

    To summarize very briefly, the car breaks down at a remote gas station, little more than a cinderblock building and pumps. Mark must walk and hitchhike to a nearby town to buy an alternator, leaving Krystal and Hans behind. He's picked up by a man and two women in a hearse who encourage him to abandon the family and join the film crew they work on, to live the good life. It's exactly what Mark, already despairing of the life that lies before him, doesn't need to hear.

    The pov alternates between Mark and Krystal. Back at the gas station, pregnant Krystal is shown kindness by the proprietor, a hard-drinking, shotgun-toting woman named Hope. (Between Hope and the hearse that threatens to bear Mark away, Wolff isn't stingy with the signposts in this story.) Hope lives in the back of the cinderblock gas station building, and invites Krystal to nap in her bedroom, a red-saturated "love nest."

    Mark accepts the offer to ride on with the occupants of the hearse, abandoning Krystal and Hans, but soon changes his mind and demands to be let out. He catches another ride back to the parts store before it closes, but he doesn't have enough money to buy the alternator, and the store is closing. He is reduced to calling home for help, the thing he has most desperately avoided. Indulging in one final fantasy, he plans to pretend to be a state trooper, calling to inform his parents of a crash that killed Mark (their son) and his family. But when his father answers the phone, Mark says only, " 'Dad, it's me--Mark.' "

    Krystal has her own delusion, and it too is crushed when she wakes up from her nap and Mark has not yet returned:
    I will say a poem, Krystal thought, and when I am finished he will be here. At first silently, because she had promised to speak only English now, then in a whisper, and at last plainly, Krystal recited a poem the nuns had made her learn at school long ago, the only poem she remembered. She repeated it twice, then opened her eyes. Mark was not there. As if she had really believed that he would be there, Krystal kicked the wall with her bare feet. The pain gave an edge of absolute clarity to what she'd been pretending not to know: that he had never really been there and was never going to be there in any way that mattered.
    While Krystal has been sleeping, Hans has been entertained by the men on the bench, who have taught him to say "bitch," the word with which he greets Krystal when she emerges from the bedroom. She flies into a rage, cursing the men in German, attacking them with a piece of lumber. The story ends with an apocalyptic image:
    She [Krystal] shaded her eyes and looked around her. The distant mountains cast long shadows into the desert. The desert was empty and still. Nothing moved but Hope, walking toward them with the gun over her shoulder. As she drew near, Krystal waved, and Hope raised her arms. A rabbit hung from each hand, swinging by its ears.
    I like this story because it moves; it proceeds relentlessly forward with conflict after conflict to expose the naive fantasies of this young couple to the harsh reality of the world. I also like it because the simple, fast-paced syntax is so well suited to the setting and the characters. And I like it because, ultimately, despite the blatantly contrasted symbols of the hearse and the woman Hope, the story can't be satisfactorily reduced to an aphorism. It's a story that uses event (plot) to define the characters that people it, something that writers are constantly exhorted to do, but something which is very rarely achieved.

    Tuesday, April 18, 2006

    Things in Small Packages

    This week's New Yorker fiction ("The Last Days of Muhammad Atta") isn't online, so I'm turning to another terrorism-related story, "If a Stranger Approaches You about Carrying a Foreign Object with You onto the Plane...", by Laura Kasischke. This story appears in the Fall 2005 issue of Ploughshares, guest-edited by Antonya Nelson (see "Extra Credit for Marmots").

    "Stranger" is deviously crafted, and well worth reading. It begins:
    Once there was a woman who was asked by a stranger to carry a foreign object with her onto a plane...
    Just in case you didn't pick it up from the title, Kasischke makes doubly sure that we know what the story is about. No hemming and hawing, no coyness. This sentence does a lot. Phrased as it is, like the opening of a fable, or a parable, it implies a hypothetical question: What would you do, gentle reader, if someone asked you to carry a package on a plane? Like all of us, the woman, whose name turns out to be Kathy Bliss, has scoffed at such a question, not believing that anyone would ever be so stupid.

    The first sentence also establishes an omniscient pov and a psychic distance ("there was a woman") that gives us a moment to consider the question objectively, from outside. The omniscience also prepares us, subtly, for the possibility that the woman may die during the narrative. (If the story's pov is close third, we won't think her death is possible, and the story will never reach maximum tension.) After this distant opening, Kasischke swiftly draws nearer and nearer the woman until we are inside her head:
    When the stranger approached her, the woman was sitting at the edge of her chair a few feet from the gate out of which her plane was scheduled to leave. Her legs were crossed. She was wearing a black turtleneck and slim black pants. Black boots. Pearl studs in her ears. She was swinging the loose leg, the one that was tossed over the knee of the other—swinging it slowly and rhythmically, like a pendulum, as she tried to drink her latte in burning sips.

    By the time the stranger approached her and asked her to carry the foreign object with her onto the plane, the woman had already owned that latte for at least twenty minutes, but it hadn’t cooled a single degree. It was as if there were a thermonuclear process at work inside her cup—the steamed milk and espresso somehow generating together their own heat—and the tip of her tongue had been stung numb from trying to drink it, and the plastic nipple of the cup’s white lid was smeared with her lipstick.
    First we see how she is dressed, then we feel her bodily sensations in the swinging leg ("like a pendulum", a nice touch) and the burning coffee. Then the second paragraph moves neatly into her thoughts about the coffee.

    The second paragraph (remember the thermonuclear process) also cleverly establishes the story's theme. The coffee cup is the first of three small objects in the story that carry a threat. The second object, as you might assume, is the foreign object. What's the third? Note the coffee cup's "plastic nipple." Does a coffee cup have a nipple? No. Why does she use that word? It's all about the power of association, a way to gently underscore the relationship of the three objects. Consider that nipple after you reach the end of the post.

    Eventually, a man approaches Kathy and asks her to carry a package on board. The man looks like an Arab (he later gives her an Armenian name) but he sounds American. The package is small and gift-wrapped; the stranger tells her it contains a necklace for his mother's 70th birthday. He's supposed to be flying to Portland for the party, but his girlfriend just called and told him that she's pregnant; he has to go to her, as soon as possible. If Kathy will just carry the gift, his brother will pick it up at the other end. He offers to unwrap it so she can see the necklace. She declines, unwilling to destroy the beautiful wrapping.

    Of course, we fear that the package contains its own thermonuclear process. But Kasischke handles the scene so deftly that we understand when Kathy agrees to take the package with her. She doesn't want to be paranoid; she wants to help this earnest young man, who needs to leave so he can buy his pregnant girlfriend an engagement ring, for God's sake.

    After she agrees to take the package, and in fact boards the plane with it tucked into her carry-on, where can the story go? It's a crucial point; she has us on the edge of our seats. Will the plane blow up? Will Kathy deliver the package? It's the old yes/no/maybe/4th best thing problem. Both "yes" and "no" promise to be unsatisfying. What does Kasischke do? First, of course, having us where she wants us, she plays the tease by inserting some backstory about Kathy's childhood. She lived next to a prison, and her father died young. Other than heaping on more dark imagery, this information does little, if anything, except to heighten the drama by making us wait--a worthy purpose! But then Kasischke hits us with her second stick, the real stick: Kathy has a sick two-year-old (briefly mentioned earlier in the story). No sooner has she boarded the plane than she is handed a message: "Baby in hospital. Call home now. Husband."

    The baby is the third iteration of the story's image system, another small, dangerous package. The narrative jumps to a week later, after the baby has survived its brushes with death and is back home with Kathy. We realize that the bomb did not bring down the plane; we also realize, apparently sooner than distracted Kathy, that she did not deliver the package to anyone in Portland.

    After Kathy has pulled the package from her carry-on, the story ends:
    She didn’t open it, but imagined herself opening it. Imagined herself as a passenger on that plane, unable to resist it. Holding it to her ear. Shaking it, maybe. Lifting the edge of the gold paper, tearing it away from the box. And then, the certain, brilliant cataclysm that would follow. The lurching of unsteady weight in the sky, and then the inertia, followed by tumbling. The numbing sensation of great speed and realization in your face. She’d been a fool to take it with her onto the plane. It could have killed them all.

    Or, the simple gold braid of it.

    Tasteful. Elegant. A thoughtful gift chosen by a devoted son for his beloved mother. And she imagined taking the necklace out of the box, holding it up to her own neck at the mirror, admiring the glint of it around her neck—this bit of love and brevity snatched from the throat of a stranger—wearing it with an evening gown, passing it down as an heirloom to her children:

    Who was to say, she thought to herself as she began to peel the gold paper away, that something stolen, without malice or intent, is any less yours than something you’ve been given?
    We thought we had dodged the thermonuclear device; instead, we are left to wonder forever: will it explode?

    Friday, April 14, 2006

    Extra Credit for Marmots

    A brief entry. Today I read "Rear View," a story by Antonya Nelson in the Fall 2003 issue of Ploughshares. Antonya Nelson can flat-out write, something I've only discovered recently (and she has the awards to prove it; just check out the cover of her latest collection, Some Fun). This story is an engaging, entertaining narrative, as is "Palisades" (Fall 1999), also on-line at Ploughshares.

    Both are good reads, and that's all I really want to say; however, I can't mention "Rear View" without making a couple of quick comments. First, "Rear View" is very similar in structure to "A Walk in Winter" by Robert Boswell (see Are You Dead, Deer?); i.e., it's written backwards.

    Antonya Nelson just happens to be married to Robert Boswell.

    Second, and you might want to sit down for this, "Rear View" includes a scene where an animal is hit by a car and the driver reluctantly leaves said animal to die. Yes, the Dead Animal Trope raises its head from the asphalt once again. However, as the title of this entry implies, the animal in question is not a deer, or a dog, or a goat, or a horse; it's a marmot. So, Ms. Nelson, extra credit for originality.

    Thursday, April 13, 2006

    Our Story Begins and Begins and Begins

    Tobias Wolff's "Our Story Begins" appears in Back in the World along with "Leviathan" (see "A Whale of Two Tales"). This story is unusual even for Wolff, because it is a frame within a frame: a story in a story in a story.

    The outer story is about Charlie, a young busboy in a San Francisco seafood restaurant. Charlie is also an aspiring writer, although we don't learn this until the end of the story. Charlie is at work; it's a slow, foggy night. He eavesdrops on the waiters at the restaurant, but not much happens. After the restaurant closes, he walks toward home. He encounters a three-legged dog. He enters a coffeehouse where Jack Kerouac used to hang out.

    Three people enter: Truman, George and Truman's wife, Audrey. These three proceed to act out a small drama that serves as the outermost of the two inner stories. George and Audrey sing together in a church choir; the choir has just returned from a trip. After some chat, George tells a story about a Filipino immigrant named Miguel. Miguel's story, the innermost of the three stories, is a tale of unrequited love; Miguel pursues a woman who has no interest in him. Today we would just say he's a stalker. She has him jailed and almost deported, but he doesn't give up. The woman moves away from San Francisco. One day Miguel calls George and asks for help. He has gone blind, his head is wrapped in bandages, but he still insists on going to find his beloved. He's getting on the bus, and he asks George to call ahead and arrange for the woman to meet him. He believes against all reason that the woman loves him and will be there to receive him, bandages and all. Love, ahem, is blind.

    Truman expresses incredulity that Miguel could have been so "blind" to the situation before him. Then Wolff treats us to his own snippet of "Hills Like White Elephants" subtext:
    "Truman, listen," Audrey said. But when Truman turned to look at her she took her hand away from his and looked across the table at George. George's eyes were closed. His fingers were folded together as if in prayer.

    "George," Audrey said. "Please. I can't."

    George opened his eyes.

    "Tell him," Audrey said.

    Truman looked back and forth between them. "Now just wait a minute," he said.

    "I'm sorry," George said. "This is not easy for me."

    Truman was staring at Audrey. "Hey," he said.

    She pushed her empty glass back and forth. "We have to talk," she said.
    Thusly, George and Audrey confess their affair to Truman as Charlie eavesdrops.

    Charlie leaves the coffeehouse and continues toward home. We have returned to the outer-outer story. He thinks about the music he's heard all night; he thinks about Mark Twain; he thinks about his novel, returned by some heartless editor with a note saying, "Are you kidding?" He realizes that he was close to giving up on his dream of being a writer, but he also realizes that he has decided to keep going. The story ends:
    He stood there and listened to the foghorn blowing out against the Bay. The sadness of that sound, the idea of himself stopping to hear it, the thickness of the fog all gave him pleasure....

    Charlie turned and started up the hill, picking his way past lampposts that glistened with running beads of water, past sweating halls and dim windows. A Chinese woman appeared beside him. She held before her a lobster that was waving its pincers back and forth as if conducting music. The woman hurried past and vanished. The hill had begun to steepen under Charlie's feet. He stopped to catch his breath, and listened again to the foghorn. He knew that somewhere out there a boat was making its way home in spite of the solemn warning, and as he walked on Charlie imagined himself kneeling in the prow of that boat, lamp in hand, intent on the light shining just before him. All distraction gone. Too watchful to be afraid. Tongue wetting the lips and eyes wide open, ready to call out in this shifting fog where at any moment anything might be revealed.
    This is Wolff's advice to the learning writer. Pay attention. Be watchful. Listen. Who knows when a Chinese woman will appear beside you, her lobster conducting music? Who knows, indeed, what may be revealed.

    A Whale of Two Tales

    "Leviathan" and "Our Story Begins" appear in Tobias Wolff's collection, Back in the World (Vintage Contemporaries edition, 1996, originally printed in 1985). Each of these stories employs one of Wolff's favorite devices: the frame.

    Simply defined, a frame is a story that contains another story, with the inner story usually told by a character in the outer story. With any luck, the inner story has some relevance to the outer story. In many frame stories, such as the old P.G. Wodehouse golf stories, the outer story is very thin, barely a wrapper around the inner story. Wolff's frame stories tend to be constructed with a meatier outer story, with the inner story presented as anecdote, or for illustration.

    "Leviathan" is the story of Ted and Helen and Mitch and Bliss, four hedonists who have gathered to celebrate Helen's 30th birthday with an all-night cocaine session. They also smoke some marijuana and drink some wine. Wolff tells us almost everything we need to know about this group in the second paragraph. It's morning, and Bliss is smoking and cooking a "monster omelet."
    "So how does it feel," Bliss said, "being thirty?" The ash fell off her cigarette into the eggs. She stared at the ash for a moment, then stirred it in.
    Blech. Theme alert: She sees the ashes; she pretends they aren't there.

    Mitch, 40, has already had a facelift and wants people to think he's 20-something; Ted is a fitness buff; they are all beautiful people, and they intend to stay that way. Bliss has a daughter who lives with Bliss's ex-husband; this daughter was recently hospitalized for tonsilitis, and Bliss feels bad because she never went to the hospital to visit. "I can't deal with hospitals," she says. The other three console her, because after all, the little girl is okay. "She's all right," they say again and again, a mantra. Ted and Mitch confess that they've done much worse things, although Mitch's "confession" turns out to be a condemnation of someone's else's behavior.

    All this negative talk depresses them, so they decide to talk about the good things they've done. This is where the true inner story begins. Helen tells them about a day when she went on a whale-watching boat tour with a neighbor's retarded but grown son. She had known this man growing up and had taken him to the zoo on numerous occasions, but neither had been whale-watching before. After several hours of inactivity, an enormous whale appears, half again as long as the boat. The whale "plays with" the boat, brushing against it, rocking it violently. Even the crew is frightened, thinking the whale could kill them all; Helen becomes worried that the retarded boy will panic and jump overboard. She resolves to calm him.
    "I just talked him down," Helen said. "You know, I put my arm around his shoulder and said, Hey, Tom, isn't this something! Look at that big old whale! Wow! Here he comes again, Tom, hold on! And then I'd laugh like crazy. I made like I was having the time of my life, and Tom fell for it. He calmed right down. Pretty soon after that the whale took off and we went back to shore. I don't know why I brought it up. It was just that even though I felt really afraid, I went ahead and acted as if I was flying high. I guess that's the thing I'm most proud of."
    Next, it's Ted's turn to tell a story, but he has passed out:
    "I think he's asleep," Mitch said. He moved closer to the sofa and looked at Ted. He nodded. "Dead to the world."

    "Asleep," Helen said. "Oh, God."

    Bliss hugged Helen from behind. "Mitch, come here," she said. "Love circle."

    Helen pulled away. "No," she said.

    "Why don't we wake him up?" Mitch suggested.

    "Forget it," Helend told him. "Once Ted goes under he stays under. Nothing can bring him up. Watch." She went to the sofa, raised her hand, and slapped Ted across the face.

    He groaned softly and turned over.

    "See?" Helen said.

    "What a slug," Bliss said.

    "Don't you dare call him names," Helen told her. "Not in front of me, anyway. Ted is my husband. Forever and ever. I only did that to make a point."

    Mitch said, "Helen, do you want to talk about this?"

    "There's nothing to talk about," Helen answered. "I made my own bed."
    So, everything is not perfect in La-La land after all. Perhaps Helen has realized that the whale is out there, waiting, no matter how convincingly she pretends otherwise.

    The criticism of a story like this is that it seems too convenient that one of the characters just happens to have an anecdote that so neatly meshes with the outer story, even if she doesn't realize it. But I think that complaint is a little churlish. We all tell anecdotes, sometimes because they illuminate a more current situation; sometimes that's true even if we don't know what we're doing. Our minds know more than we do.

    In the next post, I'll talk about "Our Story Begins," a story that I like to think of as Tobias Wolff's guidance to beginning writers.

    Wednesday, April 12, 2006

    Are you dead, deer?

    Recently, it seems that I can't look down the scope of my thirty-ought-six without seeing a short story about hunting. And all these stories were written before Dick Cheney realized he hadn't bagged his limit of lawyers, so I can't blame that recent news item as the impetus. Men (and some women) just like to write about hunting. There's an elemental life-and-death appeal to it.

    The Pushcart Prize XXX (2006) contained at least two hunting stories: "Her First Elk," by Rick Bass, and another, the title of which escapes me, about a woman dying of cancer who goes on her first hunt with a man she met via a personal ad. By coincidence, I recently read "The Jewish Hunter," by Lorrie Moore, also about (in part) a woman on her first hunt. Yesterday I blogged about a variant, Robert Boswell's "A Walk in Winter," which includes a deer struck by a car (no, not technically a hunting story, but decidedly gamey). I recently blogged about Tobias Wolff's classic "Hunters in the Snow" (see "More Pancakes, Tub?"), and last night I read yet another, John McNally's "The New Year."

    Like the Boswell story, "The New Year" is about a deer being hit by a car, but the ending alludes strongly to "Hunters in the Snow." A young man, Gary, is on his way home from a party, stoned out of his mind and recently informed that his girlfriend is pregnant. His mother left his father in the not-too-distant past, and his father is nearly comatose with grief, unable to work, unwilling to speak.

    A twelve-point buck runs in front of Gary's car; the deer is killed, and Gary's car is totaled. He's five miles from home; as in every good hunting / deer bashing story, it's cold as hell, but he has no choice. He walks home. He tells his father what happened, and for the first time in a while his father perks up. He grabs an axe and hustles Gary into his truck and they take off for the crash site, where they find the car and the deer, "already dusted with snow." The father then proceeds to chop the buck's head off, his plan being to mount it, unpreserved, on a sheet of plywood and fedex it to his ex-wife and her new husband as a wedding present. The story ends:
    They drive the rest of the way home in silence, the deer's head rolling around behind them, antlers clawing the truck's bed. Though the storm has ended and the sun is peeking over the tree line, the wind is still fierce, and Gary stares blankly at the snow whirling across the highway. His surge of adrenaline is on the wane now, the rush of exhilaration over. He's falling asleep, slipping into that precarious crack between consciousness and unconsciousness, but for a moment, before he drifts completely away, Gary pretends that he and his father have been in a fatal collision, and that although dead, they are still puttering along in the pickup, maneuvering it through swirling clouds instead of snow, and they are having the best time they've ever had together, father and son floating high above the rural roads and farms, two men no longer of this earth.
    Now reread the ending of "Hunters in the Snow" and compare. While McNally takes us by the hand and spells out this image of two men bonding in a pickup, "no longer of this earth," Wolff creates the same image with a surreal scene, purely dramatized. It's good old showing versus telling, which is not to dismiss McNally's story, but to point out, once again, Tobias Wolff's mastery.

    Tuesday, April 11, 2006

    The Need to Know

    I've been reading an anthology titled The Story Behind the Story: 26 Stories by Contemporary Writers and How They Work, edited by Peter Turchi and Andrea Barrett. After each story is a two- or three-page note from the author discussing the story's genesis.

    I'm enjoying it. The writers are all accomplished, yet, with one or two exceptions, they aren't household names. No Annie Proulxs, no Alice Munros, no T.C. Boyles. The only story included that I've read before is "Love and Hydrogen," by Jim Shepard, which was included in Best American Short Stories 2002. Some of the authorial notes are very enlightening.

    Today I read Robert Boswell's "A Walk in Winter." It's about a traumatic event that shaped the life of the narrator when he was a young boy. Now, as a man, he has been called back to his boyhood home to identify his mother's remains, or what may be his mother's remains: a collection of bones stored in Tupperware containers that, when the narrator stacks them on the floor, are "as tall as a person." By examining the teeth, he determines that the bones are not his mother's after all. But I'm getting ahead of myself. We don't learn that until the 15th of the 21 pages.

    What was the traumatic event? Was it the death of his mother? Not exactly. We don't find out until pages 19-20. Boswell makes us read the entire story to get our payoff.

    I'm not complaining, although some readers decry this technique of delaying information. The narrator knows damn well what we want to know and refuses, spitefully, to tell us! Yes, it's sort of a trick, but the narrator in every story knows everything in advance and refuses to tell us. After all, he has finished writing the story before we read it; yet, when the narrator is speaking in first person, this willful delay feels a little more devious. I don't think it's a fatal flaw, though, and it can certainly create profluence. It gives the story somewhere to go. If the nature of the traumatic event is unveiled too soon, what do we do with the remaining twenty pages? Also, to be fair, the narrator in this story doesn't know everything about the traumatic event until shortly after he examines the bones in the Tupperware.

    The effect of this technique, in this case, is that the story is told backwards, with the narrator drawing closer and closer to the Big Event. (Spoiler alert, in case you plan to read this.)

    Here's the order of events as they are told:

    First we learn that the narrator is in Chapman, South Dakota, where his mother disappeared into the winter woods when he was ten. The father acted suspiciously.

    Next, to throw us off track and also to reap the benefits of the beloved Dead Animal Trope (see Beating a Dead Horse), there is an automobile accident involving a deer.

    Next is a brief flashback to an incident in the narrator's adult life in which he had a panic attack and wrecked another car. We don't know what caused him to panic, but we hope he doesn't do it again.

    Next we get a little backstory about the narrator's boyhood: his mother had bad teeth, the farm was poor, and the winter was very, very harsh. The family subsisted on whatever the father could shoot and drag home to eat, including a neighbor's dog. At this point we learn that the narrator is returning home to identify his mother's remains. Her frozen remains.

    Next we meet Officer Patty, and learn that the narrator's father hasn't been seen in years, but now he's a suspect in his wife's murder. There's also a rumor that the narrator might know where his father is. The narrator says nothing.

    Next is a section where the dead mother is compared to the deer (the payoff of the dead animal trope), although, to be absolutely honest, we don't know if the deer, which scampered away, is dead. But it might as well be.

    A little more childhood flashback to characterize the father as a not-very-pleasant man who was capable of violence.

    Next, the narrator examines the frozen remains and determines, because the teeth aren't bad enough, that they do not belong to his mother.

    Next, he learns that the police have discovered another piece of evidence (the timing couldn't be better): a shotgun, near where the bones were found. The narrator has a light bulb moment: the bones, he realizes, were the bones of his father, who killed himself with his shotgun.

    Finally, we get the big payoff, the Traumatic Event: flashback to a day when the father takes the ten-year-old narrator into the woods. He makes him sit on a stump and face away. The father loads his shotgun. The narrator, certain that his father is about to shoot him, possibly to spare him from starvation, wets himself. In a strange (and barely plausible) show of compassion, the father takes the boy back to the cabin so that the boy's underwear won't freeze. The father soon after disappears; the boy never sees him again and is raised by wolves. Er, concerned relatives.

    The story ends with the grown narrator taking some comfort from the epiphany that his father had planned all along to die with him (something that had apparently never occurred to him in the intervening twenty-odd years).

    So, all snide comments aside, the story works as an example of one way to handle the event that is almost too big to write about. It's also an example of saving the biggest, juiciest scene for last even though it lies first on the timeline.

    Monday, April 10, 2006

    Sofa, So Good

    "The Trojan Sofa," by Bernard Maclaverty, is this week's New Yorker fiction. It's a good old-fashioned voice-driven crime story about an eleven-year-old boy (the narrator) who helps his father run a burglary scam. The father, who justifies his thievery in the name of Irish bravery, sells and delivers furniture. When he identifies a target, the boy is sewn inside the sofa (hence the title); the next day, when the homeowners have left, he cuts his way out and admits his father and uncle, who proceed to steal whatever they can carry away. The story details one such episode.

    It begins in media res, with the kid in the sofa:
    It’s dark—pitch black—and everything’s shaking and bumping. I’m not scared—just have some what-if knots in my gut. What if they have a dog? That would be me—well and truly. Or a burglar alarm, with laser beams, like they have in the movies. And when you walk through the beam, which you can’t see, the alarm goes off in the nearest cop shop. But my Da would’ve asked all these questions when he was selling. My Da sells anything and everything, bric-a-brac, furniture, you name it. He sells all over the place—fairs, car-boot sales, a stall in the Markets—but quality stuff, or as much of it as he can get. He’s good, friendly, knows what he’s doing.
    This kind of opening, where the nature of the action is unclear, is slightly risky, because it relies on the reader to be curious enough, and patient enough, to keep reading. And Maclaverty doesn't stop to explain--instead he cuts to a scene demonstrating the father's technique for finding out if the victim has a dog or a burglar alarm. Soon we have figured out what's going on, with no break in the action.

    This story is pure entertainment, with almost no backstory, no layered meaning, no purple patches. Its strength lies in the narrator's description of his experience inside the sofa: how he deals with the need to urinate (a plastic bag), his fear of falling asleep and giving himself away by snoring, the food he takes along (ham and cheese because it's odorless), how he observes, from his hideaway, the home around him. Structurally, the story is one long scene (with several brief reflections that might qualify as backstory), followed by one brief section of aftermath that is part scene and part summary. Not the most complex story, but an easy and amusing read.

    Saturday, April 08, 2006

    The Logic of Love

    Karl Iagnemma's On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction is a collection of eight stories about scientists in love (if "scientist" is defined broadly to include "mathematician"). In an interview at Identity Theory, Iagnemma says that the book as originally submitted to publishers only contained four science-related stories, but Dial Press, the eventual publisher, requested more science and Iagnemma delivered.

    In addition to the title story (see Doing the Math, Revisited), in which a mathematician tries to understand love with Venn diagrams and formulae, the more well-known stories include "The Phrenologist's Dream," about a phrenologist who believes that he will recognize the perfect wife by the shape of her skull, and "Zilkowski's Theorem", about another mathematician who risks ruin by writing a doctoral thesis for the woman he loves.

    Each of these stories includes some hard-core detail about the protagonist's area of expertise. "On the Nature" includes a drawing of a Venn diagram that illustrates the narrator's love for his girlfriend, as well as his actual formulae, complete with Greek symbols, that describe love. Do the formulae make sense? Heck if I know, but they look good. And Iagnemma has enough sense to avoid long-winded explanations. "Phrenologist," a piece of historical fiction, includes this passage:
    In his vest pocket Jeremiah carried a leather-bound book; for each woman he examined, he penned three numbers: their amativeness, adhesiveness, and conjugality, rated from one to seven. At night in the hotel room, he wrung his gloves in the washbasin, then leafed through page after page of data, the figures as varied and perplexing as women themselves.

    Nagle had shown that skull size was determined by race; Layfield had proven the relationship between combativeness and climate.... He was thrilled by phrenology's brash wisdom--for what was science's greatest purpose, if not to explain man to himself? As he read, he gingerly touched his own skull, propping the book open with his elbows. Surely, he reasoned, a woman's capacity for love couldn't be random.
    Throughout the collection, Iagnemma gives us just enough detail to convince us that the narrator knows what he's talking about, without ever letting the science take control of the narrative.

    The point of this technique is to establish the narrator's authority, to make the reader more willing to accept the story as "truth", to enhance verisimilitude. You see it used frequently, but often the author goes overboard. I've seen this happen in Glimmer Train stories more times than I care to remember. I call this kind of story, where the author seems too proud of his research, a "term paper" story. At some point you forget that you are reading fiction, with characters and human problems, and think instead that you have wandered into a textbook on geology, or marine biology, or whatever expertise has been heaped on the protagonist's shoulders.

    But Iagnemma doesn't write term papers. He gets it right.

    Wednesday, April 05, 2006

    Who's Your Daddy?

    "Famous Fathers," a story by Pia Z. Ehrhardt that appeared in Narrative Magazine last year, is one of ten finalists for storySouth's 2006 Million Writers Award. This story already won the Narrative Prize, a $4,000 tip of the hat awarded annually for the best story by a new or emerging writer in Narrative Magazine.

    In "Famous Fathers," Ehrhardt plays to her strength: the confusing and complicated relationships between fathers and daughters. Katie, a girl on the cusp of 18, seeks the attention and love of her father, the somewhat imperious mayor of Texadelphia. The story begins:
    My father is the mayor of Texadelphia,
    so he gets to work early and stays late in his
    wood-paneled office with red leather couches.
    A window looks out on a small green square with
    a fountain and some park benches. On the tile
    floor in front of his desk is the mayoral seal, and
    everyone steps around it like it’s religious. I’d like
    to remind them he’s just a man, but his office
    impresses me too. When I’m in there it’s easy to
    feel like a voter and not a daughter.
    That confused relationship lies at the heart of the story. Is Katie a voter or a daughter, a girl or a woman? Exactly what does she want from her father? Her friends speak openly of using their nascent sexuality to get the attention of (and manipulate) their own fathers, and encourage Katie to do the same. Katie does eventually win her father's attention, but not without cost.

    Ehrhardt's prose is focused, flawless and unobtrusive. She never overwrites, never resorts to trickery, never pushes for effect. She tells the story and stays out of the way. It's easy to forget, when we become overly attuned to the technical aspects of craft, that solid prose remains the fiction writer's first, best tool. But ultimately you have to pick the right words and put them in the right order.

    This story is an easy pick for the Million Writers Award. I've already cast my vote.

    Monday, April 03, 2006

    What Was That Again?

    Some writers seem to be able to make a career out of telling the same story over and over. This week's New Yorker fiction is "In the Reign of Harad IV", by Steven Millhauser. Fans of Millhauser will enjoy this story, in the way that I enjoy Seinfeld reruns.

    Millhauser earned a measure of fame for winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1997 for Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer. Here's part of what Wikipedia says about it:
    A focus of the novel is Martin's imagination for grand, sweeping business ideas and his instinctive sense for orchestrating large systems. Through all this Martin has the persistent feeling that there must be something bigger waiting around the next corner. One of the novel's themes is the emptiness that may lie behind the ideal of the American Dream.

    In this more current offering, the protagonist is a court miniaturist. He has an imagination for tiny, infinitesimal ideas and systems. He is refurnishing a miniature version of the royal castle, much to the delight of the King, yet he has the persistent feeling that there must be something smaller waiting around the next corner. He continues to create smaller miniatures, ones that may only be seen with a magnifying glass. Then, still unsatisfied, he creates an entire miniature kingdom that is wholly invisible, even with the glass. His assistants ask for a look, which he allows them; they praise his work effusively, although he knows that they can't see it. He doesn't care that they can't see the Emperor's new clothes (oh, wait, Millhauser didn't write that one), and bends back to his task.

    One of the story's themes is the emptiness that may lie behind the ideal of the American dream. Yeah, we get it.

    Sunday, April 02, 2006

    Good Grief

    Yesterday I was talking with someone about the tendency of writers, when writing about emotional topics, to push too hard for sentiment. To explain too much, to put too many words in a character's mouth, to turn to the camera and emote. Sentiment should arise from the objective details of a story; interjections of feeling by the narrator or characters result, instead, in sentimentality.

    "Grief," by Pamela Painter, is an excellent example of the right way to handle an emotional topic. It's also an excellent example of how to build suspense, and how to create and thwart expectations. This story, which appeared in Ploughshares in 2000, won Painter a Pushcart Prize.

    The story begins:
    Harris was walking his usual route to work, up Beacon Street and past the State House, when half a block ahead he saw their stolen car stopped at a red light. It was their missing car, all right—a white ’94 Honda Accord, license plate 432 dog, easy to remember—and it was still pumping out pale blue exhaust, portent, Harris remembered thinking, of a large muffler bill and so much grief.
    So much grief, over a muffler. Harris alerts a nearby policeman and before long has his car back. Along the way, we learn that the adrenalin Harris felt as he spoke to the policeman was "the first thing he’d felt in the year since his wife’s death." In the opening quoted above, the car is referred to twice as "their car," but there is no "their" there; there is only Harris, the grieving widower.

    We do feel Harris's grief, in passages like this one:
    The day after his wife died, he’d driven an hour west on I-90 until he came to a rest stop with an outside phone booth. He’d pulled the folding door shut against the outside world, and he’d called home over and over to hear her voice say, “Hello, please leave a message. We don’t want to miss anything.” Then he’d saved the tape and left a message of his own.
    But this is grief expressed in action, not through internal discourse. We don't hear Harris's lamentations, we aren't subjected to an explanation of his feelings.

    One evening after Harris has recovered his car, he gets a phone call from the car thief, a man referred to as Ponytail. “You got my TVs,” Ponytail says. It turns out that three televisions are in the trunk of Harris's car, televisions that Ponytails says he had repaired and needed to return to their owners, but which, we believe, are stolen goods. After a series of calls, Harris agrees to meet Ponytail and let him have the televisions.

    At this point, in reading the story the first time, I sat back and pondered where the story might go. What expectations had Painter created? Clearly, the reader feels that Harris is stepping into a dangerous situation. And Harris has his own misgivings:
    Ten minutes later Harris was driving to the appointed place, wondering if he really would go through with this maneuver. He didn’t feel prepared for anything since his wife died. He probably wouldn’t be meeting Ponytail if his wife were at home waiting for him, worrying. They would have talked it over, together come up with a plan. It saddened him that he didn’t know what she would have wanted him to do.
    Here, in writing that "it saddened him," Painter may have indulged in a little telling. But by this point, she has (as they say) earned it.

    What will Ponytail do when they meet again? Harris can't just hand Ponytail the televisions and drive away; although that might happen in real life, we know that the story demands something more. Our expectation, of course, as in any suspenseful story, is that something bad is going to happen.

    As writers, though, we should expect something else, and that's what Painter delivers. I admit that I had envisioned a transfer of televisions from Harris's car to Ponytail's; but, of course, Ponytail has no car. That's why he stole Harris's. So Harris must drive him, and the televisions, back to Ponytail's house. Painter makes it plausible that Harris would do this by showing that Ponytail seems to be as wary of Harris as Harris is of Ponytail. She dampens the threat level. Then we get this exchange:
    Once they were on the open road, Ponytail said, “Hear that rattle? Oil needs changing.”

    Harris glanced down at the dash, which was reassuringly dark. “A light usually comes on if—”

    “Them lights don’t know nothing.”

    “So, you think it’s the oil?” Harris said.

    “I was gonna do it.”

    “Yes, well, thanks,” Harris said.

    “You probably know about the muffler,” Ponytail said.
    Not exactly what we expected, is it? Although Ponytail is indeed a thief--when they arrive at Ponytail's house, Harris sees stacks of microwaves and leaf blowers in his garage, still in their boxes--he is not just a thief. Harris also sees clothes flapping on a clothesline.
    Harris backed up fast till he was flat against the car door with thoughts of taking off, TVs and all. Why on earth was he here? As if on cue, a woman came to the window and peered out through the screen. She was jiggling a kid about two on her hip. Absurdly, Harris found himself noticing that her blond ponytail was fatter than her husband’s.

    “Hey,” Ponytail called out to her, his thumb jabbing the air in Harris’s direction. “He’s gonna help me put the stuff in the garage.” Another kid, not much older, butted his head under her arm. “Bring in the clothes when you finish,” she said without acknowledging Harris, then smartly wheeled the children away.
    Harris helps Ponytail unload the televisions, and then
    “Well—” Harris said. Because he didn’t know what else to say, he turned toward his car. It had probably been parked on and off in this same driveway for three whole weeks. The candy wrappers must have been from the kids. Beyond the fence, the shiny robe or dress was fluttering back and forth. It was actually a bathrobe, and Harris could see now that the hem was a little ragged and one of the elbows had a hole in it, but it was still of use. Without thinking, he walked past his car to the clothesline and reached up to undo the clothespins holding the robe in place. The robe was red; it was light and slippery as he folded it over his arm.

    Ponytail touched his shoulder. “Hey, man, you don’t need to do that.”
    The story doesn't proceed in quite so linear a fashion as my summary, but it doesn't stray from the main path for long. A friendly female neighbor has been cooking dinner for Harris and hinting that they go to a movie, but he isn't ready yet for dating. This, Harris's need to move on, is what the story is really about, but it's never allowed to slow down the surface story about the car thief. This story is a great example of using an external conflict (Harris v. Ponytail) to contrast, and illuminate, an internal conflict (Harris's reluctance to move on with his life).