Short Stories All the Time

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... a few of my thoughts about 900, mostly contemporary, short stories.

06 June, 2017

Smith Henderson, "Treasure State"

Daniel, 15, and his older brother, John, embark on a road trip supposedly to Montana, the Treasure State. They’re escaping their abusive father who is being released from prison, plans to go home, and has advanced cancer.

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.

05 June, 2017

Carson McCullers, "Who Has Seen the Wind?"

Third person POV, simple past tense, New York City setting, story about a writer who has published a couple of novels and then experienced writer’s block. He becomes an alcoholic with his marriage on the rocks. The story takes place between four o'clock in the afternoon and ends before 4 o'clock in the morning.

We see Ken move from socializing with publishing industry friends to people he barely knows and speaks with a writer who has published only one short story and becomes confrontational with the earnest young man. “’What makes you think you are a writer?’” We see Ken change from a fashionable fellow with a powerful wife who people want to be around to a man asking for money on the street for a cup of coffee.

The story was first published in 1956 in Mademoiselle.

I am so hooked on the stories of Carson McCullers. I only started reading her this past year and her stories are powerful, realistic, poignancy with an emotional accuracy in the candor. There's only one line in the story that I think is a POV shift that wouldn't be possible. "A hunched and haggard figure with luminous, lost eyes, Ken plodded slowly toward the subway." Ken wouldn't "see" himself?

FAVORITE LINES:
“At four o’clock he put the clock in the clothes hamper, then returned to the typewriter.”

“’When I was young I was sure I was going to be a great writer. And then the years passed—I settled on being a fine minor writer. Can you feel the dying fall of this?’”

“There was a change—thirteen years ago when he published The Night of Darkness Esther would have fairly eaten him up and never left him alone at the fringe of the room.”

01 June, 2017

Carson McCullers, "The Haunted Boy"

"The Haunted Boy" was first published in November, 1955, Mademoiselle. It's about a dozen pages long, told in third-person POV, and simple past tense. We learn some of the backstory through Hugh's fear of a past event being repeated.

In the first couple of paragraphs, the story starts with cheerful flower borders then quickly moves into "something wrong," "no fire," "strangely naked," "cheerless," "red-dead," and "the other time." Then, for a moment, Hugh relaxes because there's a freshly baked lemon pie on the enameled table.

Hugh Brown and his high-school friend John Laney go to Hugh's house after school and when Hugh's mother is not home, he is scared and worried. He tries to detain John. Finally, Hugh has to confront his fear that his mother has attempted suicide again. The story might seem simplistic but the more you read, the complex emotional complexities Hugh, Hugh's father, and the mother have endured and how they've coped.

"He hated John, as you hate people you have to need so badly."

"To be obligated is to be obligated."

"'Naturally, my mother can make regular pie dough if she wants to.'"

"He had talked with no one about his mother, except his father, and even those intimacies had been rare, oblique."

"...and the grudge that had started when he saw the blood and horror and felt why did she do this to me."

"'I just want you to know that I realize how fine you were all that bad time. How fine, how damn fine.'"