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.