Monday, July 19, 2010

Short-a-Day: C. E. Morgan's "Twins"

[One of The New Yorker's 20 Under 40]

Originally published in The New Yorker, June 14 & 21, 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 93.

There's a slow build in Morgan's short, but the time she spends building up the setting and establishing how that relates to these twin boys--one black, one white, later called the Oreo Boys--is well worth it, with biting parallels and a warm, gauzy attention to detail: not specific, but as if you can feel it sweating all over you:

  • "Each thinking himself dark or light, depending."
  • "They lived in the valley.... The wealthy lived on Cincinnati's seven hills, and when the flooding came they gazed down from their hills, troubled."
  • "No one had ever said she was beautiful, but she was young and that was a kind of beauty. People driving north sometimes thought momentarily, fondly, of their own mother, of her scent and the dry-handed grip that once secured them to her. Others would think, Black girls have kids way too young...."
  • "Sometimes she cried over their pertussive crying. These were her babies--she crushed them to her despite the heat."
  • "Sometimes there was a man in the apartment. He was a white man, and he came and went." 
Now, about that last quote: the slow build matches the way Morgan weaves this man--their father--in and out of the story. At first, he's just a suddenly mentioned presence. Later, he's acknowledged as their father. By the end, he's actually got a name and a personality, memorably depicted by the day-trip he takes them on and the story he attempts to tell them while falling drunkenly to sleep. We learn that he's a trucker, and not very smart ("Um, a crocodile is like a fish with a fucked-up grill and legs"), and not reliable, but that only makes him more necessary in their lives, and tells us a lot about how much the mother is struggling.

The other great part in this story stems from that first quote--"dark or light, depending"--and it's interesting to see not just how others react to them, but how they carry themselves. Mickey, the white one, is more confident, and Allmon, the black one, often stands in his shadows. But while Mickey becomes an angry child, the more contemplative Allmon seems more aware of what he wants and how to get it. There isn't a single relationship in this story that rings a wrong note: I'm deducting points mainly for the hasty ending--it leaves me with a confused taste in my mouth, but I may just be missing a cultural reference: "'Hey, Jude,' he said, 'don't be sad.'" (If it's the Beatles, it comes out of nowhere.)

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