“…[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.