PEN/O.Henry 2012: Sam Ruddick, “Leak” from Threepenny Review, Summer 2010

I was telling Peyton about a friend of mine who’d seen a documentary on polar bears one day and quit his mob in marketing the next; he’d moved to Alaska and gone to work for an environmental nonprofit, and I thought there must have been something wrong with him, because he’d always been so business-minded in the past, and the polar bear thing came out of nowhere…. She said it was like that sometimes. People just did things.”

Oscar wants the world to make sense. It doesn’t.

He’s lolling in bed with the lovely (and married) Peyton when his ex-girlfriend Stacy waltzes in to make pasta. Peyton takes this in stride. They’re opposites: Peyton is the smooth professional in a silk blouse he met at the National Gallery, and Stacy’s the Lollipop girl with dyed red hair in pigtails. I’m not sure why the switch from business to polar bears surprises him. And, oh, he has a drippy kitchen faucet.

I may be too old for this kind of story. There’s lots of momentum, and it’s entertaining – Furman’s introduction captures it well: the additional characters enter “like clowns exploding from a car”. There’s what should be a huge turning point in the middle when Peyton has a car accident while leaving – with Oscar “standing firmly in the moment for the first time all night” – but it isn’t a turning point at all, since Oscar’s befuddlement continues as Peyton’s husband George, easy-going grease monkey who’s fine with the affair since he’s had his share, comes over to pick her up and by the way fix the leak.

In his Contributor Notes, Ruddick says: “I used to be overly concerned with plausibility: The actions of my characters had to make sense. People don’t work that way. I don’t know why I thought fictional characters would. Ridding myself of the notion has made the work much more interesting.” I’m not sure if by “the work” he means the work of writing, or this particular story. In any case, he does a nice job of straddling the line between realism and absurdism.

But… nothing really connects with me other than some mild amusement, so I’m still not sure I get it. All three of the others are completely different from each other? Oscar in the center of chaos? He’s had a tool box (one his mother gave him, no less) for twenty years and it takes George to fix his leak? There’s got to be a huge message here. I’m sure Peyton, Stacy, and George know exactly what it is, so, like Oscar, I’m just living with the drip until someone fixes it for me. Hmmm… I wonder if that means something.

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4 responses to “PEN/O.Henry 2012: Sam Ruddick, “Leak” from Threepenny Review, Summer 2010

  1. Pingback: Sam Ruddick: “Leak” (PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2012) « Fail Better

  2. Not sure if you watch Mad Men, but apart from agreeing almost word-for-word with your assessments here (perhaps I’m just living with a drip, too), I found myself unable to resist comparing “Drip” to a recent episode, “Signal 30,” in which Pete Campbell hosts a dinner party and ends up relying on Don Draper to fix a leak.

    I think Ruddick went too far with his revisions to his first draft (and I wonder if this is merely his second, people-pleasing draft: it certainly feels more workshop-y than anything I’ve read lately): having implausible characters is one thing: having uninteresting characters is another. There’s nothing to connect to because there’s nothing there: George is unshakable, Stacy is screwing around with Oscar’s relationship out of boredom (something she’s never done before, crazy or not), and Peyton apparently just likes to feel important and in control, which makes you wonder why she married George.

    Anyway, only eight more stories until we get to “A Brush.” I wonder if my tastes will have been numbed down by then.

    • Mad Men is yet another of those things I should by all signs like, but I don’t. In fact, I’ve never sat through an entire episode. Or a half-episode for that matter. Around Minute 8, I start counting my teeth, and it just goes downhill from there.

      I’m really looking forward to your least favorite story of all time. I would skip ahead, but that’s the road to perdition.

  3. Pingback: PEN/O.Henry 2102: Wrap-up « A Just Recompense

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