Oh, my, what a story. I chose to read this because it was Perpetual Folly’s “Best New Yorker Story of 2009” (actually, one of two, and I’ll be reading “A Tiny Feast” shortly – they both ended up as Other Distinguished Stories in BASS 2010). I can see why. This is a story I wish I’d written, not just one I was glad I’d read. I’ve read Saunders before, he writes wonderful anti-consumerism stories – magical realism, alternate reality, that sort of thing – and I love them. But this is different. The basic plot is one any writer might have chosen, but the style is pure joy to read. It’s extremely internal, as close to first person as 3rd person can be. I wonder if he kept it 3rd because the transitions between characters was easier that way, or to keep from getting too deeply into the characters’ heads.
He starts with Allison Pope, almost 15 years old, imagining herself the belle of some grand ball at which she is examining and rejecting potential suitors for the smallest flaws. She segues into ballet mode, prepping for her recital that evening, a Bambi fantasy mixed with ballet lingo, and we experience the inner consciousness of a young teen who is in love with the world and herself: “Sometimes, feeling happy like this, she imagined a baby deer trembling in the woods.” It’s very internal, very disorganized, very narcissistic, and perfect. Enough playfulness to remind us she is still a child, enough interest in the world and romance and ballet to remind us she is a teen. And totally confident.
She sees her neighbor, Kyle, “the poor goof.” They grew up together but he is now not really in competition for her perfect someone. There’s a wonderful riff on “each of us deserves respect” and then the not-meter reader shows up.
Switch to Kyle. We learn of his world through his eyes: the Family Status Indicator (which is missing one status, interestingly enough), Work Notices, Shoe Sheets, Work Points, Chore Points, Major Treats – discovering this system was an amazing experience – and his wonderful game of swearing in long nonsensical bursts, in his head. Words he can never say out loud. All of them, the seven famous ones and a bunch of others Carlin never imagined at the time. One of his chores is completing a Log of cars in the church lot nearby, to aid his father in requesting a soundproof retaining wall. So he sees the van pull up. He breaks some rules, worries about that obsessively, then sees the meter reader abduct Allison. He debates what to do. The debate is totally believable, because his parents, though never in the story, are clearly depicted from the environment they’ve created.
Then we get into the head, also in third person, of the not-meter reader, who has his own problems. I love to consider how Allison now feels about everyone deserving respect, having met up with this particular guy. His craziness and his own bizarre environment are shown in the same way, through his eyes.
Then we go back to Kyle, trying to decide what to do. How can he do the right thing when the rules prohibit so many elements of that Right Thing? And what does that say about the Rules? And, finally, when he does break the rules, does that mean he can’t stop?
It’s not always easy to follow what’s actually happening – I got lost on one character transition, and there are lots of people in the not-meter reader’s life that clutter up the scene. But it’s all readable. And it’s all wonderful. The end is frightening and beautiful, and the title, the title just knocks me out. Because they all have a victory lap of sorts.
There are phrases, paragraphs, images throughout that give me goosebumps. Many of them appear in Allison’s mind: “Why was it, she sometimes wondered, that in dreams we can’t do the simplest things? Like a crying puppy is standing on some broken glass and you want to pick it up and brush the shards off its pads but you can’t because you’re balancing a ball on your head.” I never thought of it like that, how do you come up with that image? It’s amazing. “There was so much she didn’t know! Like how to change the oil. Or even check the oil. How to open the hood. How to bake brownies. That was embarrassing, actually, being a girl and all. And what was a mortgage? Did it come with the house? When you breast-fed, did you have to like push the milk out?” These are questions similar to those I had when I was a kid – she’s overprotected, naïve, and curious. That wonderful sense of being almost-15, glimpsing the world but not understanding it. Kyle hears his parents referring to him as “Beloved Only” which really puts the pressure on and smacks, to me, of scripture as well.
And again I want to know what happens next. Do they become friends again? Avoid each other? Does Kyle get in a lot of trouble for all the rules he broke, or do his parents recognize he was a hero (until he went overboard, at which point Allison became a hero, and her parents are shown acknowledging this). I suspect not, since he and Allison, while both overprotected, are quite different. But I’m glad it’s not spelled out. I’m beginning to think this is a place where I go wrong, I spell it out, when I should leave the last scene, the aftermath, for the reader. Or maybe it’s just this story.
What’s wonderful at heart is that these two teens confront reality poorly armed – Allison with a naive “all’s right with the world, I’ll give the disadvantaged with open sores some vaseline and we’ll all be fine” attitude, Kyle with the Rules that have been imposed on him. They have to fend for themselves when reality comes crashing through the protective layers their families have devised for them. And, bless their hearts, they do pretty well, considering. The not-meter reader doesn’t fare so well (he too has his way of dealing with reality) but then again, he’s the bad guy, so he’s supposed to lose.