January 23, 2014
In my seventh-grade English class, we read Daniel Keyes’ novella Flowers for Algernon, the first-person narrative of a mentally challenged janitor, Charlie, who briefly becomes a genius after undergoing an experimental procedure. It was my introduction not only to an unreliable narrator but also to one whose unusual speech patterns and perspective on the world opened to me the possibilities of the “other” in literature—whether those others were disadvantaged, culturally different, sociopathic, or just plain crazy. It’s difficult enough for writers to get inside the heads of ordinary characters with ordinary problems; writing from the mindset of a person whom one might not even understand—say, a serial killer—or just not empathize with—a narcissist—can seem downright impossible. And when writers succeed, what does that say about the writer?
Regardless, when it is done right, it’s a thing of beauty. Here are a few short stories, in no particular order, well known and not so well known, in which the writers have captured for me the haunting, the quirky, the incomprehensible beauty of wreckage in their characters, and perhaps in themselves. I have paired them together when possible to show the interesting ways in which they inform or diverge from each other.
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Peter, “Pilgrims,” by Julia Orringer (from How to Breathe Underwater)
Jodi, “Sister Rafaele Heals the Sick,” by Rosalia Scalia (Pebble Lake Review)
Albert, “Fugeur,,” Maud Casey (from City Sages: Baltimore)
There’s a lot of unease all around in Orringer’s “Pilgrims,” which begins with a group of cancer-stricken women and their families meeting for Thanksgiving. The focus is on new-age healing, but seen through children’s eyes, it’s almost as scary and confusing as the cancer. The children retreat to a tree house while a strange, somewhat dubious-seeming meditation and prayer circle convenes. Chaos ensues. The fear and frustration of these children is understandable, given the instability in their lives, and could even explain some of their acting out in the tree house. But when Peter, the oldest of the group, teases his sister by taking a precious object hostage, no reader is prepared for how far—and how wrong—he will go. I read this story once a year and am always left wondering when Orringer realized that this story needed to go where it goes, and whether she felt its darkness inside her soul, if only for a brief moment.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, in Rosalia Scalia’s “Sister Rafaele Heals the Sick,” we find the supposedly sacred. Although this tale features a nun, Sister Rafaele, I did not feel redeemed or saved by it. When one first reads the story, it is easy to mistake it as humorous. A homeless “nun,” known as Sister Rafaele, goes where she is “called,” and, in this instance, it’s the East Baltimore home of Jodi, a single mother with two young boys. Their lives make a turn for the better—or perhaps the worse, under her tutelage. Sister Rafaele—who sets up a curse jar, forbids sex in the house, and who refuses to wash—is the embodiment of the sacred and the insane. But the story, one realizes, is not really about Sister Rafaele—it’s about Jodi. Jodi, like Peter, takes a wrong turn at the end. Although it is out of frustration with the savant-like devoted Rafaele, what Jodi does is not funny but rather mean, and again the reader is left wondering how far the writer was willing to go—and from how far within her these creative decisions came.
“Fugeur” is another “calling” story, but not exactly in the way of “Sister Rafaele.” In Casey’s forthcoming novel Fugeur, excerpts of which have been published online and in print over the last several years, a young, late-19th-century Frenchman wanders the countryside in a fugue state. Inspired by the case notes of Dr. Philippe Tissie regarding his patient, Albert Dadas, Casey delicately highlights the strain in trying to make the best of one’s situation (“In Lyon, he saw the funicular railroad [Magnificent!]) and harrowing despair (“I am not real. Make me real. This is Albert’s whispered refrain in response to the Doctor’s own gentle whisper.”). Like Sister Rafaele, Albert is a ghost of compulsion, a machine, a slave to a calling not necessarily derived from a higher order. These are the characters who long haunt writers. In fact, many writers attempt to crack open these characters’ skulls, but good writers know to never quite get completely inside, to let the compulsion own the reader as well as the character. Kudos to Orringer, Scalia, and Casey for their restraint.
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Fuckhead and George, “Emergency” (Jesus’ Son, by Denis Johnson)
“Joe Blow,” by Jen Grow (City Sages: Baltimore)
An aside: Johnson’s “Emergency” is the best acid story ever. On topic: it’s also a buddy story of loveable losers, Fuckhead and George, who have taken jobs as orderlies at a local hospital, presumably in the 1970s. They get high from pills they steal from the pharmacy, and one even becomes an unlikely hero of sorts. Neither sociopaths nor crazy, they are anti-heroes, men who accidentally run over rabbits but then do something surprisingly tender to make up for it. They are, by society’s standards, losers and drug addicts, but ones who display extraordinary humanity and a great deal of balls. (And maybe a little stupidity and a lot of luck, too.) Johnson’s sparse, vivid prose imbues Fuckhead and George with grace (and also includes my favorite line of all time: “Later in the afternoon, with sad resignation, the county fair bares its breasts”).
Similarly, Jen Grow’s “Joe Blow” features a duo of loveable losers: homeless, disabled drunks named Larry and Roger. They live like brothers, like lovers, in an abandoned truck in the Baltimore neighborhood of Butcher’s Hill (where I happen to live, but this is not the reason I love this story). Larry and Roger are tolerated, usually ignored, by the residents, except for the gentle social nudges to not litter or be loud. That is, until Joe moves into the neighborhood with a broom and a desire to increase property values around his newly purchased rowhouse. This classic gentrification tale shows the human side and costs for those from whom we avert our eyes (and noses), a task which Grow handles with great care and tenderness. These may seem the easiest stories to write, but there is a fine line between clownish caricature and fragile, damaged souls, and Johnson and Grow navigate it well: they are empathetic without being preachy. They get out of their characters’ situations and roll the dice alongside them.
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Mother, “Neuropathy,” by Kathy Flann (Carve Magazine)
Freshman, “The Structure and Meaning of Dormitory and Food Services,” by Madison Smartt Bell (from Zero dB and Other Stories)
Some characters aren’t possessed by compulsion but seemingly embrace it to counter their perceived helplessness. In “Neuropathy,” Flann’s unnamed protagonist suffers from neuropathy and a mutilated, useless arm, the result of a car accident with her late, addict husband Wayne at the wheel. But, like most victims of trauma, the neuropathy manifests emotionally in many forms, the most funny (and sad) of which is her purchasing of bizarre items from a Home Shopping Network-type channel (such as “Reverse Racism” dolls, in which black celebrities like Dionne Warwick and Kobe Bryant are recast with blond hair, pink flesh, and blue eyes). Her purchases are made for the “needy,” whom God points out to her. (Did I mention the narrator is a devout Christian?) But when her twenty-year-old son brings home a surprising guest, the narrator has to acknowledge the neediness (and loss) in her own life. She must live life with feeling, with agency, and overcome the neuropathy of not only her emotions but also her choices. Flann’s narrator is the literary equivalent of Requiem for a Dream’s Sara Goldfarb, but unlike Goldfarb’s obsessions with television and diet pills, her ending will be somewhat happier (we hope).
I first read Bell’s “The Structure and Meaning of Dormitory and Food Services” when I was fourteen, and it has stuck with me ever since. Between the “freshman 15” weight gain and the high dropout rates, freshman year is a precarious time in one’s college career, and Bell chronicles a story we’ve all seen far too often—the upcoming freshman who, a poor match for his more-ambitious, outgoing roommates, combined with the newfound independence of living away from home, gradually slips into isolation and out of college all together. But Bell focuses this story in the dining halls of Princeton, with Upper Eagle being the lofty, bright place to which the successful ascend, and Madison, which is ground zero for freaks and geeks. The narrator’s obsession with the food stations, food choices, and architectural structure of Madison Hall is a masterful metaphor of his own attempt to control a situation that, like Flann’s narrator, has long spiraled out of his control.
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“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” (from Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?, by Joyce Carol Oates)
I could have paired this story with the first three but saved it for last. Oh, Arnold Friend, my first and still-favorite sociopath, whom Oates has said was inspired by serial killer Charles Schmid, “The Pied Piper of Tucson.” Arnold Friend charms the protagonist, teenage Connie, out of her house after seeing her hanging out and flirting at the Big Boy earlier. Even as she slowly begins to realize the danger she’s in, she’s no match for Friend’s subtle shift from flattery to threats, which Oates handles with great control. These types of characters are also harder to write than they seem because their patience, even with desires mounting deep within, is the key to trapping their victim—and patience on the writer’s part is crucial as well. Many writers use the mistake of force, ramming in scenes and dialogue, making the character smother the victim. But it’s the lightness, the elusiveness, the floating-like-a-butterfly-and-stinging-like-a-bee, that gives successful stories their real punch. In some ways, there’s a sexual tension, a desire—a wait, wait, wait, wait…now—that gives them their unsettling denouement.
In addition to pacing, it’s also the little details supplied by Oates that give Friend his shivering creepiness: “He had shaggy, shabby black hair that looked crazy as a wig and he was grinning at her” and “He had to bend and adjust his boots. Evidently his feet did not go all the way down; the boots must have been stuffed with something so that he would seem taller.” Those boots still appear in my dreams sometimes. And, if I’m brave enough, sometimes I try to fill them in my own writing. With myself? With someone else? I’d have be crazy to tell you.