In the past seven years that I have been writing this blog, I have discussed what I consider to be the distinctive generic characteristics of the short story form, have tried to evaluate new short story collections published during that period, and have commented on the status of the short story in the general and the academic reading public.
However, what I always enjoyed most when I was teaching short fiction was attempting a "close reading" of an individual short story and then trying to encourage my students to enter into a dialogue with me about my reading vs. their reading. I miss that dynamic engagement with students and lament the fact that I cannot replicate it on this blog.
At least I can share my "reading" of some stories that I admire in hopes that my readers might admire them too, and maybe even enter into a dialogue with me about them. Here are my thoughts on two such stories:
David Means, "Assorted Fire Events"
“Assorted Fire Events,” the title story of David Means’ second book of short stories, which won the 2001 Los Angeles Times Book Award for fiction, is a poetic meditation on the universal fascination with fire, describing and pondering the significance of several events in an attempt to explore what drives people to “play with fire” or “follow the fire truck” to a burning building.
The first event does not focus on the person who started the fire, but with the boy’s fascination with the effect of fire on a house. What he likes is the way the fire makes its way from the inside out until there is no more inside, only outside. He also likes the way the pine trees around the cottage are reduced to brittle towers. The skeletal remains after fire has ravaged a house and its surroundings create a poetic image of something being stripped to the bone.
The narrator introduces the second fire event by saying that the sound of fire, like popcorn in hot oil just before the kernels explode, makes him laugh. He tries to find a metaphor for the sound, noting it was like a “huge hunk of brittle cellophane crumpled by the hand of God.” However, he says he will never use that metaphor, but rather the metaphor of a giant weed whacker. The ironic juxtaposition of this sound against the sound of his children whooping and hollering with joy is what interests him in this event. When he finds out that the fire started from spontaneous combustion from varnish-soaked brushes, he creates an additional metaphor of sound in which the brushes sitting in the hot sun begin to sizzle and talk to each other, until “drunk with the elixir” of the varnish, they are ready to “burst forth in the song of fire.”
The next two events focus on the burning of living flesh, first by a boy named Shank who burns a dog and then by his aunt who burns herself alive. The previous metaphor of the singing fire is extended to a metaphor of dance; the dog’s body writhes in a heat wave and no one is sure if the movement is the dog’s or that of heat distortion; it is like the monks “doing their sit-down self-immolating dances during Nam.” The narrator muses that the plot of fire is both wildly fanatic and calm at the same time, taking its own sweet time and then becoming logarithmic, until it “sings sweetly the fantastic house-burning lament.”
The final and most extended fire event combines the horror and beauty of fire. When a young boy named Fenton tries to launch his homemade rocket ship with gasoline, the fire quickly gets out of control and engulfs him. The ironic juxtaposition of horrible destruction and comic effect is then suggested by a description of Fenton on fire, looking like an actor in a fire suit, a stunt person like a Chaplin tramp. This image of opposites is echoed at the end when the boy is so scarred that people try not to look at him for fear of laughing out loud. The narrator says he looks like a clown whose goofy smile is painted over the face of the saddest-looking, most pathetic clown-school dropout.
Ultimately, the narrator sees Fenton as like Christ who has walked into the fires of hell to suffer for all humankind. Thus, the fire is a holy event, for the boy has experienced that extreme mystery that he cannot explain and that the writer can only create assorted fire events to try to capture.
“Assorted Fire Events" is an example of a writer’s attempt to use language to explore the basic paradoxical mystery of fire as a powerful force that can burn away the extraneous and reduce one to pure essentials. David Means’ method for achieving this exploration is to reject linear narrative altogether and describe various fire events in such a way that even as they are horrifying they are somehow eerily beautiful. If one is concerned with images rather than physical actuality, what is horrible becomes abstractly beautiful. If one focuses only on the sound of the fire, it is “lively and spunky” like popcorn. Consequently, although there is nothing particularly funny about fire, if one divorces the sound of it from the destructive power of it, it is comic. And if one perceives the immolation of a dog or indeed a human being as being like a dance, then that too, divorced from its physical horror, can be beautiful.
In this way, the narrator moves from one fire event to another, describing them as purely aesthetic objects. The aunt’s first-person note written from the point of view of the gas can serves as a grotesque parallel to the aunt’s body and mind; the narrator thinks of the meaninglessness of the can’s life, as it is used for mundane tasks, all the while the vapors inside it pushing against the roof of its mouth, “singing, making little arias to the instability of their bonds.”
The final event of the burning of the young boy, as terrifying as it may be in actuality, is transformed into an emblem of paradox, like that of the mythic transformation of Christ from mere body into spirit. Although it seems cruel to laugh at the scarred face of the boy, what one is really laughing at is the mystery of the sadness that underlies the painted smile. Thus, the basic technique of the story is to use the essential methods of poetry, which, like fire itself, transforms the merely physical into the aesthetically meaningful and beautiful.
Ron Carlson, "At The Jim Bridger"
Although he has published two novels, Ron Carlson is one of those rare writers who has remained true to the literary form he seems to love best and at which he excels—the much-maligned short story. “At the Jim Bridger” is the title story of his fourth collection.
Echoing many short-story writers before him, Carlson considers each story he writes an investigation and a surprise. For example, he has said that when the woman in the story tells Rusty he has heard the wonderful story about him he was surprised, for he did not know that he was writing a story about stories. And in many ways, the nature of story is one of the predominant themes of “At the Jim Bridger.” The story Donner tells the woman who is not his wife about being caught in a snowstorm and saving Rusty by keeping him warm, is what began their affair. And the story that Rusty tells Donner about losing his girl to his boss is a story that bonds them in the sleeping bag in the snow.
The woman’s love for Donner results in part from the story he tells her. However, when he sees Rusty’s pickup in the parking lot, he senses something false in his relationship with the woman, something not as genuine as the night in the sleeping bag with Rusty. That the erotic experience with Rusty seems more real than his sexual experience with the woman does not suggest that Donner has homosexual longings. His lying down flesh to flesh with Rusty is a life or death experience, and the erotic nature of the encounter is not narrowly sexual, but rather broadly mythically.
Whereas Donner told the woman the story to seduce her, he now feels that this use of the story has cheapened it. At the end of the story, as Rusty and the woman dance in the New Year and he goes outside and watches the magnificent moose across the lake, he thinks that to use the story as he had, “to show it to her, burn it like a match, had led to this new darkness and the longer night.”
It would be easy to oversimplify Donner’s encounter with Rusty either by reducing it to the perhaps meaningless term of latent homosexuality or by putting it in the category of masculine bonding typical of locker room banter and towel-slapping. However, Carlson risks this, and by his no-nonsense style and the very seriousness with which the describes the encounter, succeeds in suggesting that an erotic experience can occur between two men that is not narrowly sexual, but rather can lead to a profound realization of what it means to hold someone else as if it meant life or death. “At the Jim Bridger” suggests that genuine stories about such bonding encounters, regardless of the gender of those engaged in them, are all we have to protect us from the cold that surrounds us.
Ron Carlson says that the title story of At the Jim Bridger is his tribute to Jack London’s “To Build a Fire.” However, its tight-lipped style, its focus on doing things with care, and its emphasis on telling a story well makes it a more likely descendent of Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River.” Donner is a Hemingway character who does everything with care, with a kind of exactness that borders on ritual. He tells the story of his encounter with Rusty with the same kind of precision that he uses in the wilderness to build a fire. When he tells the story well, “something in him knitted up taut and he felt centered and ready.” This sense of exactitude, of getting it just right, is part of the Hemingway style that dominates the story. Moreover, there is here the same sense of the significance of being “alone in real places,” often suggested by Hemingway. The tight-lipped style in which the story is told reflects the masculine bonding theme that holds it together.
The Hemingway style can most clearly be seen in Carlson’s description of the physical encounter between Rusty and Donner in the sleeping bag. After Donner takes Rusty’s hands and puts them in his own groin to give them warmth, “he felt himself stirred, a reflex he gave in to.” Donner identifies Rusty with his son and wants to rescue him with his own body, for as he talks to Rusty he also talks to his son. As Rusty falls asleep in Donner’s arms, “Donner knew that Rusty had taken him into his hands and they were together that way in the mountain tent.”
The story that Rusty tells Donner makes him sick, for he imagines the boyish Rusty being betrayed by his boss, an older man he saw as a father figure. The seemingly irrelevant story of Donner’s son running away is actually a reflection of Donner’s seeing Rusty as a son who has been betrayed by a father and who now can be rescued by another father. These parallels, like the parallel of the two fishing trips, create a balanced structure of significance for the story.