The themes, for me, include loneliness, “John felt terrifically alone,” and fairness, “people don’t get what they deserve, everything oh every last thing is given out at random.” Daniel has had to suffer the punishments that John thought he deserved instead. And dread, “But John did not sleep, such was his dread.” While rage and suppressed anger and sadness are evident, the story reaches deeper than just the expected themes. I think that’s one of the strengths of the story. John is surprisingly mature and because of his good nature, his little brother might end up okay. John realizes at the end of the story that while he’s sad, lonely, and angry, “there was nothing to be afraid of, nothing to do but see him off,” and he doesn’t kill his father as he’d planned. John had also felt guilt or anger that he hadn’t saved him and his brother but that a random stop by the police was what saved them. “It was pure luck that the old man had been caught red-handed and went down. Though it galled John that a broken tail-light saved them.”
The trajectory of their traveling is circular ending up finally back home. The physical traveling echoes the repetition of abuse, same thing again and again. To make money, the two young men, rob houses of people while they attend funerals. There is a night that John is trapped underneath the bed of a woman mourning her children. John gets the sleep he needed and vicariously experiences the mourning. The story is very well structured and wrapped neatly into a thematic narrative without anything superfluous. And, even includes suspense. It's damn good.
“Treasure State” was first published in Tin House. Then it was included in the The Best American Short Stories, 2016.