BASS 2011: Bret Anthony Johnston, “Soldier of Fortune” from Glimmer Train

It was the year the president denied trading arms for hostages in Iran and the space shuttle Challenger exploded and Halley’s Comet scorched through the sky. It was the year I loved a reckless girl, the year being around my best friend made me lonely.

This is a very sweet and well-told coming-of-age tale that Johnston admits he hardly remembers writing. While it is extremely well-paced and well-written – the paragraphs and sections end with perfect cadences – it’s also quite predictable, and I have a feeling I’ll hardly remember reading it a year from now.

Josh is fourteen and a freshman; Holly, his neighbor and crush, is eighteen and a senior. She’s lived across the street for all his life, except for those two years when her family went to Florida, but they’ve been back a year now. Her little brother Sam, three years old and born when they were away, has a tragic kitchen accident and is severely scalded; Josh is enlisted to feed the dog while her family is occupied. He spends a lot of time in Holly’s bedroom, making aborted phone calls from her phone, and admiring a picture of her and Sam in an orange grove. He and his best friend Matt have been collecting war trinkets – ninja stars, blank bullets, MREs – for years, but Josh has lost interest lately and has packed up the stuff for Matt to pick up.

Josh does a lot of growing up in those few days, aided by Holly’s surreptitious return from the hospital. He learns about secrets. He learns the oranges in the picture were frozen. He learns what you’d expect him to learn in a sweet, well-told coming-of-age tale.

It’s told in that “memoir voice,” an adult looking back. In this case, he’s looking back from twenty years hence: “Now I think of 1986 as the year my life pivoted away from what it had been, maybe the year when all of our lives pivoted.” Holly joined the Coast Guard (and later the Army) right as Josh lost interest in military matters, and made quite a career for herself over twenty years. His mother emailed him the obituary. He wonders if he can find the picture he stole, of Holly and Sam in the orange grove.

Oddly, we never find out whether or not Sam survived his accident. A lot of interesting family dynamics are hinted at, but not directly exposed. We find out a lot about rumors, and about how slippery truth can be.

I wish I could work up more enthusiasm for the story, because it truly is exquisitely crafted. But I can’t, because it was so familiar. There was nothing in it that surprised or excited or even interested me, other than the skill level. Except maybe the oranges. But from a “best” story, I expect more. Still, if you’re fond of the Bildungsroman genre, this is a great example.

ETA: Oops, my bad – this story is in the Pushcart XXXVI (2012) volume. I’m a little surprised, but I guess I need to read it again and figure out what I missed (hints from readers are welcome). And, oddly, this makes two “scalding” stories in XXXVI.

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