Saturday, January 08, 2011

Short-a-Day: Jim Shepard's "Courtesy for Beginners"

Originally published in A Public Space, No. 4, 2007. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 80.

Even though his story's set toward the start of the Vietnam War, Shepard so accurately describes camp (from the perspective of one who does not want to be there) that even though it's a blackly comic "Worst. Camp. Ever," it sends me back. Couple that with a somewhat depressed seventh-grader trying to simply fit in and not make things any harder for himself, and then give him a troubled brother back home who, although on the verge of being sent to a mental institution for his uncontrolled episodes of violence, is still his younger brother and you've got the makings of a vivid adolescent story. These things also give perfectly reasonable explanations for our hero's actions: sticking up for the fat kid who the counselors decide they're going to torment for fun but also standing idly by at the actions of his own provocative tent-mate, BJ. He doesn't want to be a hero; he just wants to left alone, to get through the day as best as he can.

Given all this, the literal way in which the ending sums up the story can be forgiven. After all, it really is all leading up to this moment of confession, this explanation of what the "story" is:

But what I did was the kind of thing you'd do and the kind of thing you've done: I felt bad for him and for myself and I went on with my week and then with my summer and I started telling myself my story to whoever would listen. And my story was: I survived camp. I survived my brother. I survived my own bad feelings. Love me for being so sad about it. Love me for knowing what I did. Love me for being in the lifeboat after everyone else went under. And my story made me feel better and it made me feel worse. And it worked. 
Shepard's smart to pepper the story with enough comedy leading up to this moment, and vague enough with the relationship between the brothers -- an on-again-off-again sort of thing, the "what's a little teasing between brothers" kind that this ending actually comes as a shock, though it's somewhat inevitable. Gives the story plenty of levels to work on, too, from childish laughs ("The archery range was a field with three bales of hay and a fiberglass bow. The fat kid said someone had lost the arrows the year before.") to grown-up sorrows, all while being pretty darn vivid about the whole experience. It's not a perfect story, but as the title implies, it's a start.

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