PEN/O.Henry 2011: Elizabeth Tallent, “Never Come Back” originally from Threepenny Review

He rubbed at mirror fog and told the dark-browed frowner (his own father!) to get ready; she’d had her Victor look. Whatever this development was, it fell somewhere between failing grade in calculus and car wreck, either of which, he knows from experience, would have been announced as soon as he walked through the door. This news, while it wasn’t life or death, was bad enough that she felt she needed to lay the groundwork and had already set their places at the table and poured his beer, a habit he disliked but had never objected to and never would. As a special treat, Daisy’s father had let her tilt the bottle over his glass while the bubbles churned and the foam puffed like a mushroom cap sidling up from dank earth, and if she enjoyed some echo of the bliss of being in her daddy’s good graces while pouring his beer, Sean wasn’t about to deprive her of that.

I found this story to be a game of ping-pong, a sort of exercise in “who’s the bad guy now.” First it’s teenage Victor, son of hard-working Sean and soother Daisy, when twin girls show up and claim to be pregnant by him (as it turns out, only one of them, Esme, is actually pregnant). And if there’s a bad guy, there must be a good guy, and first it’s Sean. Mill employee, hard-working, blue-collar, solid American. When I read the opening scene – he comes home from work, sees there’s some kind of trouble, and takes a shower before facing it – I kept flashing back to the auto industry bail-out a couple of years ago, Wall Street vs Detroit and the fight over “the people who shower after work” vs “the people who shower before work” and rationalizations about why it was ok to bail one out and not the other. I was on Sean’s side right off the bat.

But the Bad Guy shifts over time from Victor to Sean to Esme, and then through them again. In her contributor’s note, Tallent says: “My secret ambition in this story was to kindle empathy for characters whose actions are, on the face of it, indefensible, but which make the deepest kind of sense to them.” I think she succeeds for the most part, though maybe Esme needs more buttressing in that regard.

I like how Sean and Daisy’s parents, their backgrounds, are brought in early. Nothing happens in a vacuum. I also liked the bracelet, the competing loves. There’s a lot of that in this story, and it set off the ping-pong game, or at least signalled the start of it.

I’m not crazy about the way the gun is handled. It appears twice, and the first time it’s as if neon lights are highlighting the paragraph saying, “Remember this!” So when it appears later – even before it appears – it’s pretty obvious. I don’t think surprise or suspense is the point, but it seemed a bit clumsy to me. Seems the editors of Threepenny Review, PEN/O.Henry Prize, and the Pushcart committee disagree (it will appear in the 2012 Pushcart volume). I have a lot to learn.

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