by T.C. Boyle in Tooth and Claw
The narrator of this story has a few things he wants to tell you. Beginning in a bar, you pretty much know how this story is going to turn out, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing: you know what you’re getting into. It’s a good story, with several things to steal, but ultimately falls short.
A stranger named Jimmy is the driving thematic force of this story. The narrator, depressed and estranged from everyone himself, finds his relationship with Jimmy, though superficial, the only thing he has. He meets Jimmy at a bar, and the two begin talking, opening up to one of the keenest sentences in this piece:
After a couple of drinks at a bar, after the subject of sports, movies and TV have been exhausted, people tend to talk about liquor, about the people they know who drink too much, fly off the handle, wind up wrecking their lives and the lives of everyone around them, and then they tend to get specific.
The story unfolds through several layers of narration, beginning with the narrator and slipping, Inception-like, into the narratives of those he meets, all with the dangers of alcohol at their center. Jimmy’s story is a tragedy about the death of his son, who’d lived only until freshman year of college, when a drinking game put him in a brief coma. Later, the narrator, after a failed date with a girl, runs into Jimmy’s brother. Jimmy’s brother (he is not named) tells the narrator his own story, of his and Jimmy’s childhood when he found a dead woman frozen or drunk to death outside their meager home.
The narrator leaves, thinking of his own story and the birth of his son. He’d not wanted a son, but got one anyway, and later, with a friend, took the baby out while they drank at the beach. They begin tossing the baby back and forth, but the narrator looses his grip. The baby does not fall, though, because he catches him. He has not told this to either of the other characters.
Boyle’s writing is often astounding, crafting tone around details you would not otherwise notice. Early on, the way he describes Jimmy is as clear as it is sad:
He was standing there, the stool shoved back and away from him as if he had no use for comfort, and his lips were moving, though nobody I could see was talking to him.
When the writing is not astounding, it’s at least easy to read, maintaining clarity above all else.
Throughout the story, ceremony rules. Jimmy drinks in a “ritualistic moment” after
…a bite from the wedge of lime the bartender provided, [he] sprinkled salt into the webbing between the thumb and index finger of his left hand, licked it off and threw back the shot, after which the beer came into play.
Each character describes the ritual before their respective tragedies. In the beginning, the narrator is slumping from bar to bar. Jimmy’s early days are introduced with the mornings before going to school, listening to the radio over breakfast. Jimmy’s brother describes the passing of seasons in their cold cabin. The intention here, I think, is twofold. First, these rituals orient the reader in each of the characters’ normal lives, which is a standard technique in Aristotelian drama. Second, this theme parallels their ritualistic behavior with alcohol, as exemplified in the above quote.
Thematically, there are a few problems. You know this is going to end tragically, but Boyle tends to drag it along, riding wave after wave before revealing the ending. It’s apparent that death will befall the son, but Boyle seems to lead you across dangerous intersections without providing the plot point. Several times I thought, “Surely this is where the kid dies.” In an early description of a lacrosse game, you think the boy, Chris, is down for good:
He was reliving an episode from the previous year…Two defenders converged on [Chris], and Jimmy — the coach, the father — could see it all coming, the collision that would break open the day…
But it doesn’t, Chris walks it off, and one begins to wonder why all this set-up and no payoff. I don’t believe it made the actual event any more tragic.
Furthermore, the sheer kismet of running into a stranger’s brother a week later is hard to palate. And it’s a detail so central to the narrative that I felt pushed into believing it.
Lastly, there tended to be a problem of voice with the stories-within-a-story narration. There were a number of details revealed during the narrator’s surface-level conversations with each of the other story tellers that I wouldn’t expect the narrator to know. I don’t, for example, believe that Jimmy told the narrator how “Fall settled in early that year, a succession of damp glistening days that took the leaves off the trees and fed on the breath of the wind.”
So this is the case where the author’s good writing gets tied up in the narrative inconsistencies, but it’s a problem I’m willing to overlook in favor of enjoying the piece, which I did. What did you think?
- Subjective Score: 2/5
- Technical Score: 2/5
- POV: First Person
- Main Character: Unnamed Narrator
- Secondary/Impact Character: Jimmy
- Tone: Melancholy
- Main Conflict: Man vs. self
- Main Dramatic Question: What does the narrator want to tell us about Jimmy?
- Positive Takeaway: A skill in crafting tone is essential for the themes of your piece
- Negative Takeaway: Going too deep into the lives and stories of other characters can throw off the voice of a first-person piece.
- Beginning: Narrator meets Jimmy.
- Middle: Jimmy’s son dies.
- End: Jimmy’s brother reveals the discovery of his parents’ friend’s dead body.