Best American Short Stories 2012 – “Alive” by Sharon Solwitz
Three years ago, a cousin I was very close to died in a car accident. Both of us were only children, born exactly a year apart, and we were the nearest things to brothers either of us would ever know. I was traveling alone in China at the time, on a break from teaching and trying to work on a novel. After returning to China from the funeral, a new kind of aimlessness set in. The novel collapsed. Grief gnawed at my bones.
At the advice of a friend, I wrote about it. To a certain extent, it helped. I gained a greater understanding of the effects that grief can have on people, and I explored the experiences of others close to the death of a very good and very smart young man. But writing fiction based on real-life had several pitfalls.
When I discovered that Sharon Solwitz’s “Alive” was fueled by her own experience in the loss of her thirteen-year-old son, and that the story’s events are mostly based on reality, the story gained gravity. This wasn’t just because the characters became realer (they were already very real). It was because it highlighted Solwitz’s skill in managing her fictional characters and navigating the based-on-true-events obstacles I’d largely surrendered to.
On one level, this is an excellent story to explore fictional character. Solwitz very deftly characterizes the fractious mind of a child. On another, it begs to ask the question, “How closely tied are our fictional characters to their real-life counterparts?”
The first scene sets the mood for Dylan’s state of mind. He is bored, isolated, yearning to feel. Even the story’s early details come as bland statements of fact: “He was ten; it was Saturday; Ethan was mad at him.” When he pesters his brother, he says his brother’s name “with more force than he felt. Force he wanted to feel.” A few paragraphs later, Solwitz writes, “He was trapped in a world without joy or the possibility of joy.” Solwitz is setting the charge that is rigged to explode in the story’s climax.
Solwitz’s greatest strokes are present in her depiction of Dylan, but she also expertly handles the characterization of her other two central characters. The mother is introduced drinking from a coffee mug that reads, “Well-Behaved Women Rarely Make History.” This early sign of independence reflects her later decision to go skiing in spite the boys’ father’s protests. Moreover, she’s depicted sitting in front of a laptop with a blank screen. This is a subtle hint at her occupation, as well as a possible mirror held up to Solwitz the writer, but it’s also a suggestion that she is having trouble. Subsequently, Solwitz reveals a playful conflict when Dylan asks where his dad is. “Dad—why Dad?” his mother responds. “Isn’t Mom good enough?” The tone is lighthearted, but the message is clear: with a dying child in their midst, the parents’ relationship is strained—even her identity as mother and caregiver, perhaps, is troubled.
Solwitz sets her most cautious eye on Nate, the ill older brother. He is a paragon of the ideal child—diligent, coolheaded, kind. Perseverant despite his illness, Nate is introduced doing his homework, waving off his younger brother’s pleas to go outside. When Dylan exclaims that he wished he had cancer, too, his mother chides him for it, but it is Nate who comes to Dylan’s rescue: “He didn’t mean it…Give him a break, Thea!” he says, using his mother’s given name. When she turns her criticism on him (“It’s mother to you, boy.”), he kiddingly tells her to “Chill,” a common Nate refrain. A few pages later, Dylan has a tantrum over being forced to wear a helmet, and it is Nate who tries to calm him down (“Yo. Little bro…Chill, man?”).
E M Forester’s Aspects of the Novel mention the usefulness of flat characters as minor roles, and Solwitz uses this technique to her advantage. The father, for example, is a flat character, but he’s given a certain dimension when Solwitz writes, “Their father was slow to express pleasure but even slower to anger; his pleasure in their existence, in the entity of family, discharged clouds of tenderness.” In the story, his utility is as a foil to Thea’s desire to let the kids have some fun, but he isn’t just the stick-in-the-mud father; he is good, loving, simply a little protective. Likewise, the teenagers at the ski rental hut are flat, but they’re given qualities that Dylan can admire. They’re foul-mouthed and unmonitored, the epitome of freedom and excitement that Dylan desires.
As a story with ties to real-life experiences, Solwitz makes a wise choice in keeping the third-person narration close to Dylan. A less capable writer might choose the set a story this close to reality from her own point of view. The result might get too close to home, the story too self-involved, limited to memoir and without the possibilities of exploration that fiction can provide.
Instead, she examines it through the prism of a ten-year-old boy, one whose experiences of the world are magnified by his unwieldy emotions and supercharged desires. In doing so, she carefully depicts a family trying to deal with the illness of a son.