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).