Saturday, August 07, 2010

Short-a-Day: Tim O'Sullivan's "Family Friend"

Originally published in A Public Space 01, Spring 2006. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 81.

"You haven't been invited inside that house for three years because Sarah--and she mentions this often to Edgar--doesn't like the way you look at their girls." That's one of the cleanest and most interesting openings to a story that I've heard in some time, and O'Sullivan's narrative tact succeeds in creating sympathy for this devil, a lonely man who prefers porn to contact (cutting to the chase, as he puts it) but isn't quite a pedophile, isn't really that bad. He just doesn't know an appropriate way to be a part of a relationship or a family, now that he's no longer coaching a little-league team, now that he goes around scaring boys off his property with an M989 Blinder, "a device designed for use by S.W.A.T. team soldiers to shine from the ends of their gun barrels and dangerous people." And his inner voice, which talks to him throughout this story, won't let him forget that: "Why do such things?" it asks. "You must stop staring," it tells him. "Do you care to explain yourself, Oscar?" it says, knowing as well as anyone else that he can't explain his own impulses. No story truly can: it can simply do its best to present them for interpretation; any idea--as you may have learned from Inception--has to come from within. A story can only plant seeds.

Well, O'Sullivan has a lot of fertile soil here, especially with the second narrative going on here, a close third-person that follows each of the three daughters in Edgar's house: "She put a shielding hand to her mouth and whispered, 'It smelled like wet bark. He was like oh oooo oooo.'" That's Meg, the middle sister, and we quickly learn how curious this makes five-year-old Anne Marie, and how uncomfortable this makes Ellie, a senior in high school. It's done in a very compact style, but it all seems very real, from the mock threatening between siblings to their secret tendernesses. Best of all is the way Anne Marie keeps pretending to fall asleep in random locations so that she can eavesdrop or be cared for, only to always wind up actually falling asleep. Or perhaps it's her resolve to free Ike, the violent dog that they nonetheless care for, in the hopes that he will come to love her if she brings sausages with her, and the disappointment when he skulks off alone. And again, throughout it all, there's Oscar, second-person and all, driving around and around the block, watching. Is anybody doing anything wrong?

The weakness of the story, however, is the language, which is needlessly showboating to the point that it's only calling attention to itself. Given the simplicity of the girls' dialogue and Oscar's interior thoughts, the descriptions of branches as "slow hoary hands ushering" or the image of a dog "like some black phantom streak, jump[ing] into the brown foamy rushing," or descriptions of the house: "The kitchen light was on, a fluorescence at once medical and pernicious. The chair legs gleamed. Moths percussed against the window screen." It doesn't take a good writer to pen stuff like that; it takes a good writer to be able to cut stuff like that. Poetry is only good in prose so long as it adds something to the story. Too many of these descriptions hang empty in the air. Still, O'Sullivan remains very readable, and his ending's a real zinger of wishful thinking: "And maybe he'd yell after you, 'Oscar! Don't stop stopping by. I think maybe sometime perhaps we might need you.'"

No comments: