One Story Issue 132 Volume 8 Number 13 March 10, 2010.
Another hit from One Story; I’m thinking I should not have let my subscription expire, as they have had a very high ratio of hits to misses (for me, personally).
“The Quietest Man” is about fathers, the impact of divorce on children, communism, narcissism, and a time for truth, a time for lies. Oh, truth is always the best course? Fine, when our narrator Tomas is hauled in for questioning by the communist Czech police and asked the names of his conspirators to write an underground newspaper, was that a time for truth? A higher truth, maybe, which means not telling the truth to the police.
At any rate, this is mostly back story. The “now” of the story concerns Tomas, college professor, learning his 23-year-old daughter Danielle has sold a play for Off-Broadway, and when he learns it is about their family, he becomes concerned. He has not been the best father; he knows this, but he does not want everyone else to know it. He immediately thinks, “How do I fix this?” and invites his daughter up to his home in Maine.
We need some backstory to appreciate this. We learn about Tomas and Katya, his wife, their struggle in communist Prague (including the interrogation mentioned above, after which he was dubbed “The Quietest Man”), their move to the US on his fame and qualifications as a political scientist, though his wife, he admits freely, was always the intellectual, their daughter, his obsession with his career, their divorce when daughter Danielle is 2 years old, and the fading of his career when communism dies and is no longer fashionable, replaced by Bosnia, South Africa, and the myriad other places on the globe where people are struggling against despots and prejudice. He does still have a daughter, but he dismisses her, and pretty much ignores her until at last Mom calls a halt to their visits, to protect the girl’s psyche.
The character of Tomas is extremely well-drawn. His narcissism especially leaps off the page; everything is about him, so of course when his daughter says “I’ve sold a play” or “I like that lamp” or “Mom told me” he fits it into his schema by “How does this affect me?” He never considered that her play might actually be good. He’s never considered she had much worth at all, in fact. (I’m wondering, where did Molly Antopol find my father?) By the time she visits him in Maine, it is too little, too late, though he gets points (from me, at least) for trying. For the record, the One Story interview with Molly Antopol indicates otherwise in her opinion, and she is the author, after all.
What I find craftworthy, is this: I am stunned by how well everything fits in this story – and I wonder if it fits too well, perhaps? Every element relates to another element. His silence in the interrogation is mirrored by the conversation with his daughter. In an account of Danielle’s last childhood visit, he discovers she rewrites existing stories to include herself – “Danielle, the Witch and the Wardrobe” as he says. He writes her into an existing story at the very end. His wife Katya becomes a janitor when they arrive in the US due to her lack of fluency in English, while he is an adjunct – which tells the tale of their marriage pretty well. He talks about his house being a mess, then about obsessive neatness – one of the few inconsistencies in the story, I’m not sure what to make about that – and now wishes to tidy up his image with his daughter, not so she will be happier or proud of him, but so he will not be embarrassed.
Favorite moments: so many. There’s an account of him forgetting to pick up Danielle, resulting in her being left outside for a long time, which is presented as a stage play, an imagined scene in her play, and it’s artfully done. About his wife’s revolutionary activities in Prague, carrying the infant Danielle and speaking to a crowd in Wenceslaus Square: “She spoke with such force that she persuaded an American reporter to write a piece about me.” The ever-changing parade of refugee-of-the-year at faculty parties. The narcissism revisited again, and again, and again – “so enough about me, let’s talk about you, what do you think about me” is not a joke to this guy; when he asks about her mother, he asks if she’s been talking about him.
There are some minor missteps, to me. Katya as janitor, them both standing in the hall and students walking around them like they walk around desks, “just another sad immigrant hunched next to a mop” – seems a little over the top. And there’s a moment where he listens to his daughter preparing for bed, the water running, toilet seat going down, that is TMI, unnecessary, and almost creepy. But these things are minor.
Antopol talks about the ending being like the light at the end of the tunnel being an oncoming train, and yes, that’s true, but I still think it’s more of a redemption than she intended. But that’s my reading.
Another fascinating note here: this story was discussed in Esquire two years prior to the One Story publication. The names have been changed to more closely resemble American names and New Hampshire becomes Maine (since I’m from Maine, I’m interested in that choice – what is it about Maine that made it more desirable as a location?) She uses “Harpswick” as the town, and does a good impression of coastal Maine – I’m thinking she visited Harpswell (near Bates and Bowdoin colleges) at some point in the intervening years and picked up some good detail. Tomas and family were originally from Russia, not Czechoslovakia. But it seems like the same story. I’m interested in why the changes were made.