Saturday, July 17, 2010

Short-a-Day: ZZ Packer's "Dayward"

[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): 89.

What good is a story that only has a beginning? This excerpt from ZZ Packer's upcoming novel, The Thousands, really ought to be labeled as such (an excerpt), but I won't hold that against her. Besides, what is here is fairly clear, and sets the time--using a slightly antiquated grammar--right from the first sentence: "Early yet, the morning clouds the color of silver fox, and Lazarus was running." There's delayed action, a poetic rhythm, a(n overly) descriptive bit, all in one, not to mention the odd prepositional phrase, "Early yet."

The next two pages, however, are an ecstatic read, and have a lot of storytelling juice. Despite having been freed from the neglectfully cruel Miss Thalia ("'All I got to say,' Miss Thalia said, curls agog as if she'd been caught in a freezing rain, 'is that we always fed and clothed you slaves.'")--"by poor dead Abe Lincoln himself"--she's still loosed the hell-hounds on them, seeing them as emancipated deserters. Lazarus, who is "fourteen years old. Perhaps fifteen," also goes to great lengths to save his deaf, nine-year-old sister, Mary Celeste, choking the dog with his own arm, regardless of the cost. There's a lot of compressed weight to all this action: Lazarus takes action based on his father's favorite anecdote, in which a man does the same thing to escape a dog: "My hand's back in slavery, but the rest of me's free, by God." The names tell us a lot, too, about the sort of faith of their parents had, although they both died--the father, foolishly, and the mother following, distraught, in his footsteps.

Packer shows some great promise here, but she needs a novel--there's no middle to all this action (their exodus to Aunt Minnie's in New Orleans), and the ending seems contrived, artificial as it is: "'Nine goddam children,' [Minnie] said to the dark. It was neither a curse nor a lament but a pledge." Nothing's changed, and we don't know if Lazarus will lose his arm (he's already survived a bullet to the temple), so I'm left unsatisfied, but excited enough to forgive the editor's choppy decisions.

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