Jennifer Egan’s “Safari”

by Jennifer Egan, The Best American Short Stories, 2010, p 63

A safari is interrupted in this well-told tale of family and fear.

Rolph and Charlie are joining their father, his girlfriend, and several of his associates on a safari in Africa. The group is connected by a set of strange dynamics that include professional relationships, tenuous romantic ties and semi-rebellious familial attitudes. All is well until an idiotic minor character is attacked by a lion, disrupting more than just a budding illicit affair between Mindy, the girlfriend of Rolph and Charlie’s father, and the tight-lipped tour guide, named Albert. The event is the kind that shakes loose all the fears and consternations that are welled up in each of the characters. Rolph’s eleven-year-old infatuation with Mindy seethes into anger when he thinks she’s just being mean to Albert (in fact, she’s shaken by her sudden attraction to him). Charlie’s ongoing desire for her father’s attention slips into burgeoning sexuality. And when Lou, the father, later discovers Mindy’s slight unfaithfulness, his desire for her turns from a passing fling to a wrathful competition to “keep” her. Group dynamics in “Safari” swell to a point far beyond the action, and when the two most innocent lives here (Rolph and Charlie) collapse into a suicide and a drug addiction, you feel that the few weeks most represented in “Safari” held the turning point for the tragedies that later befall, but you may not be able to say what, specifically, happened.

The greatest part of this story is Egan’s ability to formulate compelling relationships and maintain several individual identities through a shifting, omniscient point of view. With astute clarity, Egan’s narrative builds a complex web of relationships and confidences that are forged and broken in the span of the story. See in the first paragraph how Egan weaves the group’s ties.

“Remember, Charlie? In Hawaii? When we went to the beach at night and it started to rain?” Rolph is talking to his older sister, Charlene, who despises her real name. But because they’re crouched around a bonfire with the other people on the safari, and because Rolph doesn’t speak up all that often, and because their father, Lou, sitting behind them on a camp chair, is a record producer whose personal life is of general interest, those near enough to hear are listening closely. “Remember? How Mom and Dad stayed at the table for one more drink—”

The lucidity with which this story opens establishes a number of important themes and conflicts. “Remember?” Rolph, who is only eleven, asks. The repetition of the word “remember” at the end of the paragraph ossifies his nostalgia for what their family unit used to be. The recipient of the question, Charlie, is concerned about something else. The fact that she “despises her real name,” opting instead for the more traditionally masculine version, shows that her identity is her primary concern. And their father Lou, who is the center of the group’s attention, makes his response to Rolph’s question (“Impossible,” he interrupts), deepening the meaning of Rolph’s remembrances.

Charlie’s concern is of her father and his new relationship, in which he is literally “intertwined” with a younger woman named Mindy. The set up here is Charlie’s deepening desire for affection or at least attention from her increasingly distant father. One may argue that her and Rolph’s desires are related. In fact, Charlie’s addition “You were married to Mom on that trip” suggests this is so.

Lou’s charm, however, retains the affection of the other members of the group, which include his professional acquaintances and a pair of elderly bird-watching ladies:

Lou is one of those men whose restless charm has generated a contrail of personal upheaval that is practically visible behind him: two failed marriages and two more kids back home in L.A., who were too young to bring on this three-week safari.

Lou’s charm, in other words, works on everyone but those closest to him. But, in another of Egan’s flashes of deep human knowledge, it is revealed that he is still humanly connected to his son:

If he were an introspective man, he would have understood years ago that his son is the one person in the world who has the power to soothe him. And that, although he expects Rolph to resemble him, what he most enjoys in his son is the many ways in which he is different: quiet, reflective, attuned to the natural world and the pain of others.

It seems Mindy is the latest casualty in Lou’s “contrail of personal upheaval,” and her alliances are already fading. The group’s Hemingway-esque guide Albert becomes a locus of her sexual attraction when they are all on a trip into the bush in search of animals. When they stop to watch a pride of lions, Albert and Mindy have a moment of semi-solitude.

“You’re driving me crazy,” Albert says, very softly. The sound seems to travel out his window and back in through Mindy’s, like one of those whispering tubes. “You must know that.”

“I didn’t,” she murmurs back.

“Well, you are.”

“My hands are tied.”

“Forever?”

She smiles. “Please. An interlude.”

“Then?”

“Grad school. Berkeley.”

The temerity of Albert’s sexualized and sudden admission, paired with the formality of “You must know that,” exudes complexity of both character and their difficult situation. Mindy’s simple “I didn’t” reveals her reticence without rejecting Albert’s charms outright, and her casual “My hands are tied” establishes her plausible deniability if they are caught. “Forever?” Albert asks, and it becomes astoundingly apparent that he is a passionate man, willing to wait. But this derring-do is parried by Mindy’s suggestion that her relationship with Lou is only an “interlude.” The brilliant exchange ends with a statement of their “irreconcilable locations”: he in Africa and she in California.

Their exchange is interrupted by a similarly daring display of bravado. Chronos has slipped out of the jeep and begun lurking among the lions. Ultimately, he is attacked, but Albert saves the day by shooting the lion. The subtle parallel here is that Chronos, who will survive, but with stories and scars, has ridden the line that they are all trying to get close to. Their competing notes of animal sightings, Albert and Mindy’s passion, Rolph’s nostalgia, and Charlie’s desire for affection are all displays of what these characters want life to be. They want meaningful, passionate relationships, excitement, they want to live.

As the point of view shifts to Rolph, we watch as he, discomforted by the mirth of excitement after the attack, goes up to his room with Mindy, in whom he finds comfort. On the way they meet Albert, and Rolph invites him to his room. What unfolds is a deliciously awkward scene in which the two adults, confused about their earlier conversation, stiffly navigate Rolph’s attempts at making everyone comfortable.

As the three of them ascend the stairs, Rolph feels an odd pressure to make conversation. “Is your room up here, too?” he asks.

“Down the hall,” Albert says. “Room 3.”

Mindy unlocks the door too Rolph’s room and steps in, leaving Albert in the hall. Rolph is suddenly angry with her.

“Want to see my room?” he asks Albert. “Mine and Charlie’s?”

Mindy emits a single syllable of laughter—the way his mother laughs when things have annoyed her to the point of absurdity. Albert steps into his room. It’s plain, with wooden furniture and dusty flowered curtains, but after ten nights in tents it feels lavish.

“Very nice,” Albert says. Mindy crosses her arms and stares out the window. There is a feeling in the room that Rolph can’t identify. He’s angry with mindy and thinks Alert must be, too. Women are crazy.

The pressure Rolph feels is an element of his father’s own misogynistic qualities (echoed by the final “Women are crazy”) that Rolph will continue to struggle with. The anger he feels is both a parallel to his father’s later anger (when he finds out about this exchange) and a subconscious fear that he will lose her, as he has lost his mother before her.

In the story’s penultimate scene, Rolph and his father are spear fishing. Rolph tells Lou about Mindy’s rudeness to Albert, but Lou recognizes the attraction and responds, “Women are cunts.” But the boy doesn’t parrot this, as he has before.

Rolph gapes at him. His father is angry, a muscle jumping in his jaw, and without warning Rolph is angry, too: assailed by a deep, sickening rage that stirs in him very occasionally—most often when he and Charlie come back from a riotous weekend around their father’s pool, rock stars jamming on the roof, guacamole and big pots of chili, to find their mother alone in her bungalow, drinking peppermint tea. Rage at this man who casts everyone aside.

For Rolph, this fear has a chance at fading in the final scene, in an open-air disco. His sister asks him to dance with her, and the boy, who has until now been quite self-conscious, agrees.

She takes hold of his hands. As they move together, Rolph feels his self-consciousness miraculously fade, as if he were growing up right there on the dance floor, becoming a boy who dances with girls like his sister.

In a series of future-tense descriptions, Egan reveals what will happen to our central characters: Mindy and Lou will marry, though she will periodically think of Albert and think “longingly of this rip to Africa as the last perfect moment of her life.” Charlie will join a cult with a charismatic leader (who is like her father, perhaps). Rolph and Lou will stop speaking, and eventually Rolph will commit suicide. Charlie will return to her given name—Charlene—“unlatching herself forever from the girl who danced with her brother in Africa.” She will want to name her son Rolph.

With powerful dialogue and prose, as well as supremely complex characters, Egan’s ability is apparent in this story, which so far strikes me as the best in the 2010 collection.

The Best American Short Stories, 2010,
Posted in Best American Short Stories 2010, Ending, family, growth, Jennifer Egan, maturation, relationships, Short Story, Third-person omniscient | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Marlin Barton’s “Into Silence”

by Marlin Barton in Best American Short Stories 2010 (Originally published in The Sewanee Review)

Barton captures Depression-era setting and overwhelming conflict that is as grand as it is subtle, but the execution is swallowed by soft prose and a clumsy ending.

Janey and her mother rent out a room to a photographer named Mr. Clark, who is in town to complete an assignment for the WPA. Janey, who is middle-age and deaf, has an unhealthy, oppressive relationship with her mother. The relationship sets up a conflict and resolution toward Janey’s eventual defiance. And Mr. Clark, it seems, is the trigger that will make that happen.

Immediately, Janey, through whom we see the world of this narrative, notices something about Mr. Clark, “some other dimension to him” that she does not yet fully grasp. Clumsy sexual feelings are aroused by a simple glance: “He turned and looked at her, and she grew uncomfortable again under his gaze, though she didn’t feel as if he were looking at her as a woman, the way a woman might want if it was the right man.” To make matters worse, Janey’s mother is dependent on her daughter in a way that restricts her. When Mr. Clark asks Janey to help, she agrees, and the reader knows that an important rift has opened between her and her mother.

Building to a sort of eventual conclusion that leaves the reader both satisfied in his knowledge that he saw it coming and surprised at the seriousness of the final act, “Into Silence” does indeed end with silence.

The Craft:

Barton’s world is fully realized. Each characters’ motivations and desires come through clearly, and he Depression-era South seethes in dry, crumbling existence, hinting at what once was. But bland prose and a trick ending leave the reader unsatisfied.

Silence serves to elucidate many aspects of this story, especially its characters, who say more by not speaking. In one ease of under-explanation, Barton avoids telling how Mr. Clark knows sign language: “…no explanation about when or why he’d learned to speak…” Indeed, to Janey it seems he was born with the ability to communicate. It is important, too, that Janey keeps his ability to herself, not telling her mother, something “she could keep to herself, or maybe for herself.” Her power, like her mother’s, is the ability to keep silent.  For after a childhood illness left her deaf, and she’d begun to grow accustomed to a silent world, her deafness became “a separate place to retreat into as far as she might need at any given moment…”

Barton briefly visits an interesting description of the family’s house in a depiction that shows the building in need of repair, something that had come from the earth and now may be returning to it.  The columns across the front still have “branch stubs… so each column looked as though it grew up out of the ground.” Knotholes and treelike columns give the house a look of a forest cabin, constructed of the land around it. After the construction of the house, Janey’s grandfather was kicked out of the Methodist congregation, and then he bought the Episcopal church, and had it shipped closer, across the river. This church was where Janey “had heard her last sound.” These buildings, as well as those that Mr. Clark photographs,  seem to create a series of objects within which Janey’s life exists, or where it is trapped.

Yet, the story’s prose isn’t particularly exciting, an aspect which at times made me want to move on to the end:

Her mother wouldn’t want her to go places with her father, would become silent and withdrawn when they returned. She didn’t want Janey going to the store by herself, even for a quick errand. One day her mother found her playing in the woods behind their house, and when she wouldn’t follow her mother home, her mother grabbed her by the arm and yanked her through the trees. She finally yanked back and shouted at her, not in words but in her old voice that expressed all she felt in one great vibration. Her mother spoke with a hand then. She slapped her hard across the face. – pg 25

This scene, of course, is a pretty big deal—a mini-climax of sorts—but the prose plods along as it does elsewhere—without much narrative voice or style behind it. The play on words here, too (“Her mother spoke with a hand then.”), is particularly unexciting.

Lastly, the story is in no hurry to get to the ending and a revelation that Mr. Clark has come for more reason than just to photograph nearby buildings. His own mother had been deaf (now we find out how he knows sign language), and his father didn’t treat her well because of it, and he’s come to repay what he owes her. When Janey finds her mother dead in her bed, the resulting question is whether Mr. Clark killed her. The whole scenario is as hackneyed as it is transparent.

Stats:

  • Subjective Score: 2/5
  • Technical Score: 2/5
  • POV: Third-person limited
  • Main Character: Janey
  • Secondary/Impact Character: Mr. Clark
  • Tone: Subtle
  • Setting: Depression-era South
  • Main Conflict: Mother’s domination
  • Main Dramatic Question: Will Janey free herself of her oppressive mother?
  • Positive Takeaway: Sometimes what a character doesn’t say is more telling than what is said.
  • Negative Takeaway: Trick endings are empty. Don’t kill off your antagonist unless you mean it.

Plot Points

Beginning:  A mother and her deaf daughter welcome a photographer, named Mr. Clark, who is looking for a place to stay while he completes a WPA project.

Middle:  Mr. Clarke asks Janey to help, which aggravates the mother and empowers Janey.  They go to a black woman’s house.

End:  Mr. Clark tells Janey’s mother what they did.  She responds by secluding herself.

 

Stats:

Subjective Score: 2/5

Technical Score: 2/5

POV: Third-person limited

Main Character: Janey

Secondary/Impact Character: Mr. Clark

Tone:

Main Conflict: Mother’s domination

Main Dramatic Question:

Positive Takeaway: Sense of place, setting

Negative Takeaway:

 

Plot Points

Beginning:  A mother and her deaf daughter welcome a photographer, named Mr. Clark, who is looking for a place to stay while he completes a WPA project.

Middle:  Mr. Clarke asks Janey to help, which aggravates the mother and empowers Janey.  They go to a black woman’s house.

End:  Mr. Clark tells Janey’s mother what they did.  She responds by secluding herself.

Posted in Best American Short Stories 2010, deafness, Marlin Barton, Short Story, silence, Subtle, Third-person limited | 3 Comments

T.C. Boyle’s “When I Woke Up This Morning Everything I Had Was Gone”

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.

-p. 3

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.

The Craft

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?

Stats:

  • 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.

Plot Points

  • Beginning: Narrator meets Jimmy.
  • Middle: Jimmy’s son dies.
  • End: Jimmy’s brother reveals the discovery of his parents’ friend’s dead body.
Posted in alcohol, Drinking, First Person, Melancholy, Short Story, T.C. Boyle, Tooth and Claw | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Steve Almond’s “Donkey Greedy, Donkey Gets Punched”

by Steve Almond, The Best American Short Stories, 2010, p. 1

Dr. Raymond Oss has the difficult situation of being a psychoanalyst with a gambling problem. The severity of his problem is minor, though–he keeps it to the $3/6 table at a dump called Artichoke Joes. Yet, he still keeps his addiction hidden from his wife, mostly because he loses more than he wins. When his wife finds out, he quits the game entirely.

This is fine until a poker champ named Gary Sharpe appears in his office for counseling. Sharpe is an angry man, which, combined with his tendency for self-destruction and loud-mouthed lambasting, makes him hard to like. When he loses the World Series of Poker to someone he was sure he could beat, he comes to Oss’s office demanding that Oss help him figure out his tell. Oss knows that his ear turns red when he’s angry or nervous, but refuses to tell him. Instead Oss delves deeper into Sharpe’s background, focusing particularly on his father, who, Sharpe insists, was “a gambler in denial.” Sharpe slips deeper in to despair, eventually showing up to their meetings drunk, continuing to abuse Oss and demand repayment “for failure to deliver the contracted services.” The issue of payment becomes the center of their conflict, and they eventually sever ties. Oss continues to see Sharpe, though, on TV, being an ass. Oss himself slips back into a routine of clandestine poker games.

In the climactic scene, Sharpe shows up to Artichoke Joes while Oss is playing a hand. Oss reluctantly accepts Sharpe’s offer to play. The hand immediately goes well for Oss, and with Sharpe beginning to drink heavily Oss begins to feel pity for him. Sharpe’s ego is unrelenting, though, and the wager skyrockets out of control. In the showdown, Sharpe lays down his hand, which beats Oss. Oss is left shocked, beat by a straight flush. Sharpe reveals that his wife tipped him off to his tell (the flushed ear, which also happened when he began drinking), and the whole game was just a ruse of revenge on poor old Oss. The story ends with Sharpe cruelly saying, “The man who can’t lose always does…Did you learn nothing from our work?”

The Craft – Here’s what I liked about it.

Rhythm/power of the opening line:

“Dr. Raymond Oss had become, in the restless leisure of his late middle age, a poker player.”

This just smacks of rhythm and the effective draw that gets a reader interested. The form of the sentence alone — the parenthetical phrase (“…in the restless leisure…”) breaking up the central conflict of the story — is enough to steal for my own use. It is a sentence of pausing, a re-evaluation occurs, closing with a 5-syllabic phrase of hard-stressed words: “PO-KER PLAY-ER.” The result is both accusatory and honest (“leisure of his late middle age”).

The parallels between Oss and Sharpe: Oss was clearly the sympathetic character here, but he isn’t entirely enjoyable, either. Sharpe’s anger at his father parallel’s Oss’s own patriarchal distaste. One of the themes of this story is these characters gamble to stand on the edge of ruining their lives. Both think they have it under control, but neither actually do, and in the end the matter is decided through luck. Oss, furthermore, seems to get his rocks off by psychoanalyzing Sharpe (the fact that he hides his knowledge of Sharpe’s tell is just one sign of this). And Oss’ hubris, like Sharpe’s, gets him into trouble.

The buildup to the ending: Perhaps I was naïve, but I was certain that Oss would win. Almond seems to expertly weave our sympathy for Oss by highlighting Sharpe’s misanthropic nature.

Yet, Almond is transparent in his characterization of several characters. Oss himself is given the visual cue of “hats that did not suit him.” His wife confronts his gambling problem in a theatrical display, and even his son’s back-talking banter is not enough to make the characters seem full. Perhaps in Almond’s most blatant display of weirdness-for-characterization, the author relies on non sequitur to both distinguish Oss’s colleague Penn and to up the level of humor. Many of these attempts fall short; an attentive reader can easily pick up on Almond’s puppet strings. The clearest character is Sharpe–he’s given a history from which several of his current problems have their genesis (though the disapproving father trope may be borderline cliché, Almond works it well), and his arrogance make him bad enough for the reader to dislike while still caring about what happens.

Ultimately, it becomes apparent that this story, like other sports/game lit, can end either one of two ways. Oss can win or Sharpe can win. This simplified binary might make the story run the edge of predictable, but, speaking subjectively, I didn’t see it coming.

It’s a good short story because it does all the basics–plot and character development (even if this story’s characterization technique is a one-trick pony), and two characters with enough tension between them to carry you to the end.

Stats:

  • Subjective Score: 3/5
  • Technical Score: 2/5
  • POV: Third-person limited
  • Main Character: Dr. Raymond Oss
  • Secondary/Impact Character: Gary “Card” Sharpe
  • Tone: Humorous
  • Main Conflict: Sharpe’s antagonism
  • Main Dramatic Question: Will Oss successfully cure Sharpe?
  • Positive Takeaway: A good twist can come out like a surprise hand, shocking both the reader and the characters.
  • Negative Takeaway: Watch out for transparency in characterization; the people should come alive without unnecessary idiosyncrasy.

Plot Points

  • Beginning: Oss quits gambling, begins treating Sharpe.
  • Middle: Sharpe loses World Series, demands that Oss find out his tell.
  • End: Final showdown at a card table shows Oss that hubris is his biggest fault.
Almond’s attention to the tone and rhythmic impact of certain aspects of this story is masterful. The first sentence, for example, broken by the parenthetical (“…in the restless leisure…”) carries a great pause where the information added informs rather than distracts. It is a sentence of pausing, a re-evaluation occurs, closing with a 5-syllabic phrase of hard-stressed words: “PO-KER PLAY-ER.” The result is both accusatory and honest (“leisure of his late middle age”).
Posted in Best American Short Stories 2010, Humorous, Steve Almond, Third-person limited | Tagged , , | 1 Comment