Best American Short Stories 2012 – “Anything Helps” by Jess Walter
Dialogue in Jess Walter’s “Anything Helps” serves to develop characters, convey important plot elements, and create tension. But I hope it isn’t too much of a stretch to use the dialogue discussion to highlight “voice.” This story is the perfect example of a character’s voice coming through a narration that isn’t first person, and it’s worth looking at how Walter does it. For one thing, Walter uses diction and style to characterize Bit.
Walter utilizes specific verbs and nouns to convey information about Bit. On page one, Walter writes, “…he got tossed from the Jesus beds…” (emphasis mine). These are carefully chosen terms Walter is using to put Bit’s voice in the mind of the reader. Walter could have just as easily said, “…he was told to leave the church-affiliated shelter,” or any other variety of bland and lesser descriptions. Instead, Walter dramatizes the action (tossed, not turned away) and highlights Bit’s alienation from their services (Jesus beds, Bit thinks with disdain). These early lines of street vernacular serve to establish Bit’s character and his voice, which sticks through the rest of the story.
In the subsequent scene, Walter also uses dialogue to create a humorous exchange while also setting up important plot points. As Bit panhandles on the side of the road, a man in a gold convertible appears and says he’ll give him money if Bit honestly tells him what he’ll do with it. “The new Harry Potter book,” Bit says. The wealthy driver plays it off as a joke, and to the reader, it’s funny, too, but Bit’s serious about it. A few pages later, he buys the book, and it turns out it’s for Bit’s son. The scene works on a number of levels. It’s funny, but it also reveals plot and character motivation quite succinctly.
Walter also highlights the repetitive nature of Bit’s life when he uses the “…is always saying” refrain. The life of an addict is characterized by cyclical periods of highs and low, pain and pleasure, and on page 297, Walter refers to this when he writes,
Consequences, Carter is always saying.
I feel shitty, Bit’s always saying.
Let’s talk about you, Andrea the social worker is always saying.
Especially in the throws of recovery, an addict’s life might feel repetitive, the people always telling him the same thing. This technique helps establish this theme.
Dialogue is probably most important in the penultimate scene in which Bit meets his son, Nate. There’s a quiet tension here, as Bit tries to get Nate to take a book as a gift, though Nate has already read it. The distance between the two characters is apparent. Bit doesn’t realize Nate’s already read the book; he doesn’t even know that school’s started. “And school starts…” Bit says. “Three weeks ago,” Nate responds. In this simple exchange, Walter creates a powerful scene with careful word and grammatical choices.
Bit slips into father mode carefully, beginning the sentence with an unnecessary “And,” and the ellipsis shows the father trailing off, searching for the answer to the question that’s really been asked (“When does school start?”). When Nate responds, he does show in a statement of three terse words, suggesting he doesn’t want to recognize how far removed his father is, either. The exchange is brief, almost like neither character really wants to get into the specifics of their lives, but they feel like they have to at least play these roles.
In the end, Walter pays close attention to the words his characters speak. Not only is dialogue used to convey the emotions and thoughts of the character, but to create tension, highlight important themes and establish a narrative voice.