Sunday, February 27, 2011

One (Dull) Story

I've been preoccupied lately with writing my first novel (I'm about halfway done with a draft), so I haven't had much chance to write and submit short stories. I did complete one, titled "Aphasia," and I'll be sending that out soon to see what happens. But in the meantime, rather than offering more of my own short fiction, I thought I'd comment on someone else's.

Over the past year, I've subscribed to the literary journal One Story, whose innovative idea is to send out precisely one story to subscribers roughly every three weeks. Of the fifteen or so stories I've received from them this year, I've really liked about five and at least appreciated another five; the rest I haven't thought much of. The most recent one, titled "Summer, Boys" by Ethan Rutherford, falls into the "appreciated" category: it's beautifully written, but in my view, utterly predictable and ultimately unsatisfying.

"Summer, Boys" is a coming-of-age story about two unnamed fifth-grade boys who develop an intense friendship centered on the common interests of many prepubescent males: professional football, skateboarding, dirt bikes. The two are inseparable until an older cousin of one of the boys mocks their interests as childish and introduces them to his own interest, namely video porn. The story ends with the two friends uncomfortably but compulsively trying out on each other one of the acts they witnessed in the video. So in the end, the story becomes what just about anybody could have predicted it would become from the first word (which is "Friends"): a story of the loss of innocence, conveyed through the medium of homosexual experimentation.

And that's precisely my problem with the story. Not the homosexual experimentation, which I'm confident lots of boys engage in as they're making the passage from childhood to teenhood. What bothered me was the predictability. As a rule, I think we can agree that any story whose plot can be expressed in the form of a tabloid headline isn't a very original story: "Two Young Boys Lose Their Innocence and Engage in Homosexual Experimentation!" What's so interesting about that?

Rutherford, it must be said, can write his pants off (no pun intended). Just look at this sentence (and yes, it's all a single sentence):

"Plays are called, random numbers, slow huts, sharp hikes, and the trees lining the street, the great oaks and elms that have been watching over this particular block for who knows how long, have seen how many plays called, have seen how many errant, throwing-starred punts go up on the roof, who hold, in their branches, a generation's worth of Aerobies too high to knock out--these trees, who have enjoyed, for centuries it seems, those magical on-the-lawn-hours when balls are drawn heavenward, who have stood in rapt attention for those endless minutes before the car-door slamming parents return from the outside world to ask their kids what the hell, just what the hell is going on, these trees, they whistle their applause."

That's good stuff. But to my thinking, it's form without much substance; it sounds great, it evokes a feeling, but it's all in the interest of setting up the scene toward which you knew the story was driving all along. The trees, see, are timeless, but cruel Time will snatch these boys and drag them toward teenhood and an Unspeakable Act! But that Act being neither unspeakable nor particularly interesting, the trees are mostly wasting their time, or ours, by leading up to it.

Some might say it's precisely the job of stories to render the commonplace in uncommon language; others will quibble that the classic definition of the short story presumes that every word will indeed point toward a single predetermined effect. But personally, I'm not much for stories that go to great stylistic lengths to tell me something I already know, or something I could already see coming from word one. I much prefer stories that teach me something I don't know, stories that shock or surprise me, if only (to paraphrase Emerson) with the alienated familiarity of my own being.

If you want to read a couple recent coming-of-age stories that do just that, check out Benjamin Percy's "Refresh, Refresh" and James Lee Burke's "Why Bugsy Siegel Was a Friend of Mine." Both of them are brilliant, impossible to summarize, surprising, melancholy, hilarious, sad. No timeless trees or unspeakable acts in either, but I promise you won't miss them.

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