LITERARY MUSINGS, AND NEWS YOU CAN USE, WITH AMYE ARCHER
The beauty of shorts
Harper Collins, 2012
As of late, I have found that short story collections fit my schedule better. I can pick the book up, read a story, put it down, and as is my life, sometimes it sits for a week or two before I get back to it. But that’s the brilliance of a short story collection, the ability to start anew every time you return to its pages.
Recently I finished what I consider to be one of the best pieces of short fiction I have ever read. Yes, it’s one of many stories in a book, and, yes, the other stories are wonderful as well, but it is the first story, the namesake of the book, that is the flagship of this collection.
Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events by Kevin Moffett was first published as a short story by McSweeney’s in 2009. McSweeney’s is the brainchild of Dave Eggers, my favorite nonfiction writer, so it seemed reasonable that I would love anything he published. Turns out I wasn’t the only one. Moffett’s story was a Best American Short Story award winner in 2010.
Further Interpretations of Real Life Events is the tale of the two Frederick Moxleys, father and son, whose emotional estrangement suddenly collides in print. Frederick Jr. is a writer and a teacher struggling to make ends meet, to carve out a name for himself, to become a writer. Fred, his father, takes up writing as a hobby after retirement and much to his son’s amazement, finds he has a natural talent for the written word.
At first Frederick Jr., the son, is seething with anger at his father’s attempt to encroach what the son considers his territory. This apparent trespassing begins to eat away at Frederick and his life quickly unravels:
“Carrie (girlfriend) suggested I quit writing for a while, unaware that I already had. I got drunk and broke my glasses. Someone wrote ‘Roach’ with indelible marker on the hood of my car.”
What’s unusual about this story is everything that’s happening in the background. All the white noise spinning around behind the father and son is important and woven into the narrative with brilliance. The forward action circles around an event from the men’s shared past: the death of Frederick Jr.’s mother. There was the introduction of a stepmother, unspoken hurts, and unresolved feelings, that drove a wedge between them. We discover quickly that the stories the father is publishing are real life incidents that he is attempting to explain to his son, stories about (the boy’s) mother and how much he loved her, the flowers she kept in her house, the absence of her. And Fred Jr., recognizes this right away:
“I remembered those blooms. I remembered how the house smelled with her in it, though I couldn’t name the smell. I recalled her presence, vast ineffable thing.”
And then later: “I finished reading in the bath. I was no longer angry. I was a little jealous. Mostly I was sad. The story which showed a father and son failing to connect again and again…”
One of the most poignant moments in the story comes near the end where a mysterious trip to the city dump is explained by the father. The story is about a drunken widower who is so heartbroken he throws away his dead wife’s porcelain dolls. He immediately regrets it and drags his son with him to the dump to attempt to find them. Frederick Jr. never knew why they were at the dump that day. Now he does. And the intensity of that moment hits the reader like a weight to the chest. Suddenly, we witness the transformation as Frederick Jr. sees his father as a man for the first time, rather than just a parent. A man who has lost the love of his life and stumbles around like a fool trying to recover and hold what’s left of his family together.
But the story isn’t all sad. There are rich pockets of humor under the narrative crust. The presence of a drunk and egotistical writing teacher and the quips about student writing (which any of us who teach Basic Composition can relate to.) This story is about life and death, love and anger, forgiveness and finding resolve. It’s also about writing and art, backscratchers and stepmothers. It’s about nothing and everything at once.
Amye Barrese Archer is a writer and teacher in Scranton. You can read more about her at www.amyearcher.com.