Sunday, November 21, 2010

Short-a-Day: Jim Shepard's "Boys Town"

Originally published in The New Yorker, Nov. 8, 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 62.

Art imitates life imitating art in this aggressive but ultimately dispassionate story of Shepard's, which revolves around Martin, an ex-GI with a cache of weapons and a hardened heart, and how different his life could have been -- hence him blaming everyone else -- if he'd been treated like the orphans of the 1938 film Boys Town. ("If he had one friend when he was twelve he wouldn't be standing here like this.") He's disappointed in the world: "I thought you said that if we were good, somebody would help us," he thinks, quoting from the film, and this fuels his increasingly delusional narrative. But while the first half works, that italics-emphasizing first-person voice is asked to carry too much of the story and, absent real characters or settings, soon flattens out, no empathy in sight.

The mother's an alcoholic monster, his friend is as fairweather as they come, his ex-wife extorts him with visitation rights, and the girl he's currently interested in just laughs at him. The narrative, which is clever and unique at first, becomes so loaded with bile and blame that it implodes, climaxing in a scene that might as well be out of First Blood. Sections like this vanish:

"We went out for a year and five months and then we got married and had a kid. She was always saying she was going to move out, but she finally did the deed when I pushed her down the stairs. She was all like 'You coulda killed me,' and I was like 'Hey, you shoved me first, and there was a railing, and there was carpet.' She said, 'You don't shove somebody at the top of the stairs,' and I said, 'Well what did you do to me?' And the cop who showed up was a guy who had had a crush on her in high school and he was all 'You can't be with this person. You want to press charges?' 

But when the story isn't trying so hard, Shepard gets out a lot of good ideas, especially in two brief vignettes: Martin flushes a turkey out and kills it; his mother rejects it. Martin attempts to hit on Janice, using their common interest in dogs; his dog shits on her sidewalk. The first scene is contrasted with Martin choosing to donate the turkey to a church "So somebody could get something good out of it" and the second ends with a flashback to his adoption of the dog ("The poor little fuck was just sitting there behind the chain-link looking at his paws"): it's redemption squandered. There's also some neatly embedded philosophy about choice: "Oh, this kid's sick and that kid's bipolar and this and that and I always say, Well, does he piss all over himself? And the answer's always no. That's because he chooses to go to the bathroom." In other words, why should anybody get a pass on their past? 

It's a really readable story, slick and smooth and entertaining. It just makes too much noise at the end, losing the emotional connection it needs -- in favor of intellectual ties to Boys Town.

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