Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Short Story Month 2010: "Miracle Boy" by Pinckney Benedict and "Border" by Alyson Hagy

To celebrate May as Short Story month, Dan Wickett, editor of Dzanc Books, has arranged for several writers, reviewers, bloggers, critics, and editors to discuss selected stories from two new books: Pinckney Benedict’s The Miracle Boy and Other Stories and Alyson Hagy’s Ghosts of Wyoming. I am posting my own comments from that discussion here and urging you to check Dan’s blog “Emerging Writers Network” at for comments by several others. Following are my discussions on one story by Benedict and one story by Hagy, along with a remark by Hagy. I will post my discussions on two other stories with remarks by Benedict in a couple of days.

Pinckney Benedict, “Miracle Boy”

When three boys want to see the scars of someone named Miracle Boy, it seems pretty obvious that we are in for a story about sin and redemption. Jesus, after all, is the number one “miracle boy” in Western culture, and if you are a doubting Thomas, you want to see the stigmata. The problem, it seems to me, with writing a story about this central Christian mystery, is how to bring it off without being too obvious, or lacking that, how to bring it off daringly in such a different way that the reader doesn’t mind.

I like the fact that Benedict makes his Miracle Boy a soft and jiggly kid who, when beaten down, says “It’s miracles around us every day…Jesus made the lame to walk…and Jesus, he made me to walk too.”

I can’t resist the scene of the father scrambling up the silage wagon like a monkey and rummaging around in the silage to find those feet while the boy lies there knowing what his old man was looking for. “He knew exactly.” That’s a good short line, it seems to me, to make me frighteningly filled with admiration for both the father and the boy.

And that silent scene when Miracle Boy’s father brings him over to Lizard’s house and sits out on the porch while Lizard’s mother brings iced tea and Coca-Colas to them works well, for, when such a “mean” thing happens, what is there to say? The difference between a house with a woman in charge and one with a man is the difference between Geronimo and Eskimo’s “I don’t give a damn” attitude and Lizard’s nagging guilt. I like those shoes dangling up there on the high-powered wire; they evoke just the right touch of iconic mystery.

Lizard’s climbing up that pole while driving nails just below his body to step up on creates a powerful image of the cross, as Lizard, trying to atone, pulls himself up higher and higher by his own bootstraps, as it were, to try to reach the holy grail of those grimy shoes. Those flat-faced, indifferent cows grazing just below Lizard seems just the right audience. As the nails tear at his flesh and wobble under his feet, the reader grunts and groans with him. When he reaches the top and frees the shoes, he can see his whole world around him, and it is not as big as he thought it was. He knows he is in the palm of the hand of something; he just doesn’t know what.

In the final scene, Miracle Boy’s father tells Lizard, “Your Mommy may not know what you are…But I do.” And we do too—for Lizard is suffering man, trying to atone for his sins. It is inevitable that he looks at Miracle Boy with “curious eyes, seeing him small, like a bird or a butterfly.” And even though we are not surprised that Lizard would hold out the shoes like a gift, and even though this risks lapsing into the banal, Benedict brings it off, it seems to me, ending the story with echoes of the Southern masters of this kind of story—Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor.

Alyson Hagy, “Border”

It seems to me that the key to the effectiveness of this story is Hagy’s ability to withhold crucial information until the very end without causing the story to collapse into an O’Henry surprise trick ending. I think she does this by exploiting the reader’s tendency to read short stories too fast and thus miss the little clues that something bad has happened that the boy, whose thoughts we are privy too, is just not thinking about. The only indication we have of this secret from the past is when, early in the story, the boy wishes he could stop at a cafĂ©, but knows he cannot “because of the deputies and what had happened with his father.”

Like most short stories that depend on an ending that pulls us up short, this one has to be read a second time, once we have the ending imprinted on out minds. We get subtle clues—e.g. the reference to the bottled water his father made fun of--that the boy’s relationship with his father has not been a good one and that the mother has “never been part of anything.” But it is not until we know how extreme that schism between the boy and his father has been that we understand his relationship with the Border collie.

He treats the dog as if he were a good father and the dog is his child, echoing the baby sounds the dog makes, being nipped by the dog’s sharp baby teeth, telling her she is smart to make him proud on her first day, apologizing for not feeding her right away and leaving her for a short time in a trash barrel.

His fatherly need to protect the dog is embodied in the scene with the “good cop/bad cop” cowboys who pick him up. The one named Ray is just petty and “mean,” chaffing over his failure to prove himself a man by being thrown off the back of “the crippledest mare on the Western slope.” The boy knows from his father that because Ray is a loser, he has to make someone else the loser. After Ray throws the dog out the truck window, the boy is again proud of her for being so tough and for how readily she learned things, especially the lesson that he has obviously learned and doesn’t want to teach her right away—“the black lesson of fear.”

But the final lesson, of course, is the lesson that the teacher teaches him--the lesson of betrayal. If Ray is a loser who wants someone else to lose, then the teacher, because she cannot get answers to her questions, leaves the boy with a question he cannot answer—why would she not want the dog? Although we cannot really blame the woman for calling the deputies, for she has obviously read about the boy in the papers and knows he has killed his father, at the same time, we have grown to like the boy so much that we cannot feel kindly toward her. When she refuses to take care of the dog, the boy cannot understand, for he knows the dog would be good for her. “How could anybody not want the thing that would keep them from being sent backward one last time? With this line, we understand the basic human need felt by all the characters in the story—the need to nurture and be nurtured, to love and be loved, without which one becomes hard and “mean.” As the teacher says, “It’s the kind of person I am. What I’ve turned into.”

Followup Post

Hello, my colleagues. I am enjoying reading all the remarks about “Miracle Boy” and “Border.” I always love talking with readers who love to read and read closely. It’s what I miss about not teaching any more.

I would like your opinion on an issue our discussion raises for me. In answer to John, I read “Miracle Boy” first, but actually I read it when it first came out, in Harper’s, I think. I liked it then, but I didn’t even think about the Christian symbolism at that time. I read it just once and put the magazine aside, feeling pretty good about the experience. I did not read it again because I wasn’t teaching it, wasn’t reviewing the book it was in, wasn’t writing a critical article on it, wasn’t delivering a lecture at a professional conference—all those things I have done throughout my career. That first reading was very much like the kind of reading that many subscribers to Harpers and the New Yorker engage in, just a “good read.” Not the kind of reading we have been engaged in this week, which is from the perspectives of professional writers and professional readers—the kind of reading that often made my students ask, “Where did you get all that stuff? Did the writer really put all that in there or did you just make it up?”

The question I want to put to you is this: Do you think that nonwriters and nonprofessional readers profit by being taught to read like professional writers and readers? Is there value in teaching them to read these two stories the way we have been reading them? Francine Prose wrote what I thought was a very fine book on this subject a few years ago called “Reading Like a Writer.” I reviewed the book for a couple of newspapers and raised the issue as follows:

Prose’s insistence on paying close attention to language is not a politically correct definition of reading nowadays for many academics, who have in fact argued that once you give priority to close reading, you engage in the following socially irresponsible acts: You favor indirect expression over direction expression. You favor deep meaning over surface meaning. You favor form over content. And—most unforgivably—you favor the elite over the popular.

At an international conference on the short story in Lisbon, Portugal, four years ago, I shared the platform with Francine Prose at one of the plenary panel sessions. Prose and I were in complete agreement about the importance of close reading of literary texts. However, during my presentation, Amiri Baraka stood up in the audience, and with a dramatic thumbs-down toward the stage, left the room. In his own presentation later that day, he condemned my remarks and called me a “reactionary.” Later, in her blog, Latina writer Ana Castillo, who was also in the audience, aligned herself with Baraka, dismissing Prose’s comments and calling me “a stupid white guy” for mine.

Some writers and many teachers nowadays have nothing but scorn for what they term "the so-called aesthetic," insisting that the proper aim of literary education is righting old wrongs. For them, literature is not the mysterious exploration of the complexity that makes us human; it is sociology; it is limited by history; it is Eurocentric, phallocentric, and logocentric. Originality is mere self-indulgence. Exploration of the self is narcissism.

And about that issue raised this week of writers “exploring the complexity that makes us human”: I think there is more such mystery in “Border” than there is in “Miracle Boy.” I think the mystery of “Miracle Boy” is external to the story, lying in the Christian mystery of redemption, much the way some of Flannery O’Connor’s stories owe their complexity to the dogma of Catholicism rather than to the complexity inherent in the characters and the action of the stories. I finish “Border” more puzzled about the mystery of what makes us human than I do when I finish “Miracle Boy,” because what motivates the teacher to give the boy up in the end is indeed a mystery. Lizard’s motivation for doing what he does is part of the Christian mystery of redemption. I remember once when I was in high school asking an elderly female missionary who was our next-door neighbor, “You know, what I really don’t understand is, what does it mean that Jesus died for my sins?” Funny, I don’t remember the answer; I only remember the question.

Flannery O’Connor once said she lent some stories to a country lady who lived down the road from her, and when she returned them the woman said, “Well, them stories just gone and shown you how some folks would do.” O’Connor agreed: Good stories have to show how “some specific folks will do, will do in spite of everything.” The peculiar problem of the short-story writer, O’Connor has said, is to reveal as much of the mystery of personality as possible.

John is right, of course, Flannery O’Connor detested “sentimentality.” But, as John says, “sentimentality” does not seem to be the right word for the suspicion we feel about stories that end happily, or at least, in some sort of fulfillment. Just because Lizard brings the shoes to Miracle Boy does not mean he has erased anything or solved anything. Redemption is not that easy. What one really wants is to “take it back.” One wants to go back and erase it, make it not happen, but there you are and where are you? The teacher in “Border” wants what is happening at the very moment not to be happening, but there you are and where are you? As the old lady down the road from O’Connor says, “some specific folks will do, will do in spite of everything.” It’s a mystery.

Comment by Alyson Hagy

All a writer ever wishes for is readers. We sometimes find them. I am humbled by the seriousness and intelligence of these readers.

I also think the writer is sometimes the last person who should be asked to comment upon his or her work. We work from the "inside." In "Border," I was trying to map the physical and emotional journey of a runaway teen. Charles and Jane and Anna and Stacy and John and Pei-Ling and Steven and Dan are far wiser about the nuances and echoes of the story than I am. Truly. They see the story's flaws and successes more clearly than I can even now.

But I will say that I am a fan of Francine Prose's book Reading Like a Writer. Charles's thoughts about the tension between those who read literature while "paying close attention to language" and those who read with a different kind of agenda are familiar to me. What can I say? I make stories from language. Every syllable matters to me. The older I get the more I think of myself as connected to a long, long tradition of storytellers, folks who chronicle their human cultures with language. The politics tend to slip away from me beyond that point.

I don't know if there is "mystery" in "Border." I hope there is. I sometimes want a story to ask questions that cannot be answered within the boundaries of the time/space/activity framed in the narrative. There is some attempt on my part of "flood" those boundaries in the last few paragraphs of "Border." Should all stories do such a thing? No. Was I successful in this case? I leave that to others.

Thank you all for the kind of attentive engagement with my characters and setting that all writers hope for. You've been remarkable and generous.

1 comment:

Lee said...

I have a copy of the Benedict volume, but not the Hagy story, so I'll follow along and comment where I can.

I'd like to add that it's frustrating to read posts about a text without access to the text - obviously! I wish more of these short story writers would be willing to post their work on the web. Surely they can't be making their living from short story sales alone, except in very exceptional circumstances.