BASS 2010: Lori Ostlund – “All Boy”

“…[H]uman beings always work harder to avoid losing what they already have rather than to acquire more. You see, loss is always more devastating than the potential for gain is motivating. I want you to remember that, Harold.”

We have here an unreliable child narrator who has some glimmer that he is unreliable but is not sure exactly where his world-view falls short. And we have some very strange parents. In fact, I would say the parents are beyond believability if they did not in places remind me of my own. The babysitter is fired, but not for locking Harold (age eleven) in a closet so she could watch television without dealing with his constant questions. She is fired for wearing Dad’s socks, “an intimacy beyond what he could bear.” Now, I understand both of these things. I understand how Harold took the closeting as so normal he kept a survival kit, complete with LifeSavers, a flashlight and books, in the closet, and understood his questioning, while just part of his curiosity, was distracting. I understand how his parents explained it away as “character building” because it would just be too much trouble to find another babysitter (presumably). And I understand how having an old woman (who has toenails so thick and yellow she needs her daughter to come over with a special tool resembling hedge clippers to cut them) wear one’s socks is a bit disgusting. And I understand that there was a time (this story is set in the mid-seventies, judging from the Carter-Ford reference) when children were seen and not heard, were not the center of the universe but were considered indestructible and were not coddled or protected in the way they are today. I understand this because I, too, have been an unreliable narrator. Haven’t we all.

Harold is an eleven-year-old who distinguishes between “can” and “may”, who hates science but writes great reports because it is easier to write them well than to write them poorly, who has no friends, who has many books and is beginning to realize that saying “I’m a voracious reader” is not the way to make friends, and who recognizes his teacher is ridiculing him to be part of the group, part of “us” whereas he is “them.” Pretty good for an unreliable narrator.

Harold’s unreliability is unreliable; sometimes he is simply uninformed, and sometimes perhaps willfully blind. He is unfamiliar with the word “fag” and when a potential friend calls the librarian by this name, Harold thinks from the context it might mean “helpful” and agrees. This potential friend then calls Harold a fag, and Harold looks it up in a dictionary and discovers it means “hard-working.” He then reports to his parents that the librarian is a fag, which he thinks is a compliment, and his mother scolds him for saying such an awful thing. His father has an exercise room with gym equipment and “motivational” pictures of well-cut men; Harold sometimes hears him groaning within.

There are two overheard phone conversations between Mom and her sister. This strikes me as a tired device, but a necessary (if artless) one to keep the reader informed that Dad does not have sex with her and Dad is gay and has been all along. Apparently Mom has ignored this – a little willful blindness on her part as well – but the climax of the story is Dad leaving, with the words of wisdom quoted above. Even a ridiculous marriage is something not to be lost, until it becomes just too ridiculous. Dad leaves the closet, and Harold longs for the closet the babysitter would lock him in, because he didn’t have to deal with reality that way. I can understand that, too.

You can see Lori Ostlund read this story on Vimeo. It was originally published in New England Review, and is in her Flannery O’Connor Award-winning collection, The Bigness of the World.

9 responses to “BASS 2010: Lori Ostlund – “All Boy”

  1. I must have missed this one in BASS 2010 – I’ll have to go back and take a look. I’m not a particular fan of child narrator’s – except, of course, Scout Finch. They typically come across as too precocious. It sounds like this one may have a little more balance . . .

    • Hi, Jeanie! It’s third person through the child, so it isn’t as in-your-face as first-person would be. I wasn’t sure I liked the story when I first read it, but after sitting with it for a while, it grew on me. Quite a bit, in fact.

  2. Well, I discovered why I hadn’t read the story. I haven’t read ANY of BASS 2010. Every year since 1995 my husband has given me the new BASS- this year was no different. However, apparently while I was cleaning up the Christmas haul, I stuck my new BASS inside a file box he have me. Since I haven’t done any filing since Christmas (okay, I’m not proud of this, but what can I say?) I forgot BASS was there. Now I’ve recovered it and will start catching up!

    I did read All Boy and liked it. You’re right, the 3rd person POV worked way better than 1st person child narrator.

    • Well then get reading! You’ve got some treats in store for you – and you know where to come to rant or rave.

      It’s funny, the next story, “The Ascent” is also a third-person child narrator, a little older and more reliable. It didn’t work for me at all, however.

  3. I’m still resisting this one. There’s a voice in my head that keeps saying “a closet as a metaphor in a story about being gay, a closet?” Is it possible to have a less inspired symbol?

    • See, I don’t see the kid as all that gay, or at least I don’t see him in the closet because he’s gay. I see his parents as ultra-sensitive to anything that might be gay about him. I see him in the closet because the world, his family, his school, is too painful, more of a withdrawing from people than hiding an aspect of himself.

      But this is set in the 70s so it was a different world back then. I remember in 8th grade I was desperate to find out what 69 meant – because it couldn’t possibly mean what I thought it did, could it? I think I was in my 20s before I found out it did. 😉 Then again, that was my misspent youth as a funamentalist.

  4. Pingback: PEN/O.Henry 2011 – Lori Ostlund, “Bed Death” originally from The Kenyon Review « A Just Recompense

  5. I just read this story, and am still in awe. Usually, I read a story and say, I can do that. But I didn’t get that feeling after reading this story. LOL! Ostlund’s narrator was insightful, witty and, man, can she weave a good yarn. The story appears probably more complex than it is because the narrative is not linear. There are asides, back story, etc., but it’s all kept pretty visual and emotionally poignant.

    Now, I wonder if there is some confusion about WHO the narrator is. Karen, you write, “We have an unreliable child narrator.” I’m not sure that’s the case. Yes, Harold is a character in the story, but he’s not TELLING the story. The omniscient narrator is the storyteller here. But the narrator tends to be so close to Harold at times that, sure, one might think that Harold was the one telling the story.

    Also this is a story I thought I would see in the O. Henry prize collection, not BASS. The twist at the end is CLASSIC O. Henry (always plausible and logical). Throughout the entire story I thought the father was just concerned about his son becoming gay. But when Harold overhears his mother saying, “in the closet … where do you get these terms?” that’s when my eyes jumped out of my head, and that’s when I realized it was the father who was gay. Just brilliant. So for me THIS was the climax of the story, and Harold saying goodbye to his father I would consider the denouncement.

    Overall, great read.


    • Hi Dwayne – I was just thinking about you the other day, wondering where you’d been, it’s good to see you again.

      You’re right that it’s a 3rd person narrator. I should fix that in the post, because as you can see by other comments, I’ve been called on this before. It’s 3rd person, of course, with Harold as the focus POV character. I’m not sure if I was confused or if I was just shorthanding, but I agree, it’s 3rd person. I do think Harold, the kid, is definitely the filter, however.

      I had the sense throughout that something was off about Dad. Whether he was gay, newly discovered he was gay, or was more or less asexual was uncertain until the gym came into the picture, which was pretty late in the story. So Mom’s comment was for me more of a confirmation. But of course YMMV.

      Thanks for your comments!

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