After the Fire

(Originally published by The Oregon Literary Review)

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“After the fire, the fire still burns, the heart grows older but never ever learns. The memories smolder and the soul always yearns. After the fire, the fire still burns.”

– Pete Townshend

If he remembers me after these many years, it surely isn’t as an individual, but as of a type. What a sight I must have been. The mussed wavy blond hair, the scruffy beard. The black polo shirt and jeans. The brown corduroy jacket, a worn and tattered copy of “Leaves of Grass” bulging out of one side pocket, Nick Caraway’s meditation on life, passion and the American dream peering out of the other. The future rock star of American letters, radiating passion, joy, and heartbreaking charm to any lovely young thing who might be seduced. Few were.

He himself was a man of letters, a published author of three novels of good critical reputation, but little financial reward. His voice had been silent for many years and he had settled into teaching American literature and creative writing to the small group of budding young Fitzgeralds, O’Connors, Whartons, and Salingers who sailed in and out of the Humanities building of the university every year. Continue reading

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Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find”

A Good Man is Hard to Find

O’Connor’s deft dialog transitions

In “A Good Man is Hard to Find” beleaguered Bailey and his wife take their young family, eight-year-old son John Wesley, daughter June Star, their small baby, and finally, Bailey’s mother on a road trip for vacation to Florida. The children are obnoxious, the grandmother is selfish and irritating to all, and Bailey just wants to get there. The grandmother convinces the children that they must visit a special house that has a secret panel and they begin haranguing their father to take a detour and he finally gives in just to get everybody to quiet down. Off the beaten path and lost, they have an accident and encounter a psychopathic killer, “The Misfit” and his two accomplices. What begins as a comic story suddenly becomes horrifying and violent as the family is systematically murdered by the three men. The last to die is the Grandmother, who desperately pleads and appeals to The Misfit for her life to the very end.

O’Connor’s story is told economically and she manages the pace of the action to move swiftly between main plot points without sacrificing the richness of the characterizations. She does this by deftly transitioning between direct and indirect dialogue.

In the beginning of the story, where the primary conflicts are between the members of the family, the dialog is mostly direct:

The children’s mother didn’t seem to hear her but the eight-year-old boy, John Wesley, a stocky child with glasses, said “If you don’t want to go to Florida, why dontcha stay at home?” He and the littler girl, June Star, were reading the funny papers on the floor.

“She wouldn’t stay at home to be queen for a day,” June Star said without raising her yellow head.

“Yes and what would you do if this fellow, The Misfit, caught you?” the grandmother asked.

“I’d smack his face,” John Wesley said.

“She wouldn’t stay at home for a million bucks,” June Star said. “Afraid she’s miss something. She has to go everywhere we go.”

“All right, Miss,” the grandmother said. “Just remember that the next time you want me to curl your hair.”

June Star said her hair was naturally curly.

The final line of that scene, “June Star said her hair was naturally curly,” is delivered indirectly, bringing that exchange and the scene to a clear but even conclusion. This allows for a smooth transition to the next paragraph where the action picks up the next day. Had it been delivered directly, the reader would have anticipated a response from the grandmother and the scene would have ended too abruptly. Continue reading

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Anton Chekhov’s Journey From Vignettes to Masterpieces

A Study in tone, point of view, and structure

Anton Chekhov (1860-1904)Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) was one of the most prolific short story writers of all time and is regarded as one of the originators of the form. In the course of a twenty-year career he wrote hundreds of short pieces. This article will examine Chekhov’s development as writer over those years in how his use of tone, point of view, and structure changed and matured over time by examining  three stories: one from the beginning, one from the middle, and one from end of his career.

Chekhov’s earliest stories were short, darkly comic pieces that profiled, and sometimes savaged the various tiers of Russian society at the end of the 19th century in Russia, from royalty to gentry, to peasants and servants. In “The Little Apples” (1880) we get this stinging introduction to landowner Trifon Semyonovich:

He owned an estate of comprising about 8,000 acres of black earth. This estate, being in his full possession, had been mortgaged and offered for sale. The “For Sale” notices were put up before he acquired his bald spot, but the estate has never been sold, thanks to the gullibility of the bank manager and the skill of Trifon Semyonovich, and so the worst has not befallen him. One day, of course, the bank will fail, because Trifon Semyonovich and all those others whose names are legion take bank loans without paying the interest. Indeed, whenever Semyonovich did pay a little interest on his loan, he always made a great ceremony of it, as a man does when he offers a penny for the repose of the souls of the dead or for the building of a cathedral. If this world were not this world, then Trifon Semyonovich would be called by another name than Trifon Semyonovich: he would be given a name usually reserved for horses and cows. Frankly, Trifon Semyonovich is nothing more than a beast.

Following this introduction is a narrative describing an event that also illustrates Semyonovich’s cruelty. While on a summer morning walk with Karpushka, his henchman-servant, they encounter a peasant girl and boy picking apples in his orchard. What follows is a confrontation in which the sadistic Karpushka threatens to flog them for stealing and Semyonovich taunts the boy, demanding that he entertain him with a story. Then he turns his attention to the girl, dubbed “Dulcinea” by the narrator and demands that she punish her partner for teaching her to steal. She boxes her boyfriend’s ears and then, at Semyonovich’s urging, begins pulling his hair. Semyonovich then orders the boy to punish his girlfriend. Out of fear the boy grabs her hair and begins hitting her. Angry at Semyonovich, the boy becomes incensed and beats her harder and harder. They are finally rescued by Semyonovich’ s daughter, Sashenka calling her father to come to tea. Sashenka, however, is not motivated by the plight of the young couple. Instead, she is amused. The narrative concludes with Semyonovich, letting them leave.

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