Dad was explicit about everything growing up. I was treated like an adult from as far back as I remember. For instance, I knew exactly what happened to Mom.
“Your mother works as a nurse in Rwanda. There was a genocide there and she felt herself morally obligated to help out,” he told me. “To this day she continues her work there.”
This was when I was in second grade.
“Do you understand?”
This struck me as a strange story, though it really isn’t, it just reads that way. It’s told in memoir voice, and somehow the exposition and backstory gets all twisted up with the “now” of the main events, at least for me. But it’s a fascinating character study of a father and his son, Ricky. I liked it more on second read. It’s quite possible it just took me a while to enter into the “world” of the story. Maybe if I keep reading it (which isn’t an unattractive prospect), I’ll eventually love it.
The father is a doctor, an unrepentant pedant who carries an array of markers in his shirt pocket so he can teach at the drop of a hat. His son may or may not have some kind of mental or neurological condition. At some points it seems a bit like temporal lobe epilepsy, except he claims his silence could go on for a couple of months. His physician father keeps finding a new “Syndrome X” to describe it, where “X” is whatever is popular at the time – Asperger’s, Munchausen’s, Rett’s.
Dad claims to be quite honest with Ricky in all matters, explaining his condition, and the absence of his mother, as described above early in the story. Ricky is about 11 in the “now” of the story, and he doesn’t remember his mother, so I’m a bit dubious about this explanation. I wonder if Ricky is dubious as well. It’s not something given a lot of emphasis after the above quoted paragraph, and I wonder if this is one of those inconsistencies about his father that he overlooks. Dad’s honesty is quite suspect; while he does deal in factual matters, it seems to me he’s stacking the deck a bit. How is a seven-year-old supposed to understand that his mother is off doing humanitarian work, and never calls or writes? It’s this unreliability that makes the story tick, but also contributes to that air of peculiarity, I think.
The main event of the story is a birthday party of a fellow Little Leaguer, Billy. The events don’t quite make sense to me. They’re not bizarre, really – Ricky opens all of Billy’s birthday presents while everyone’s out playing baseball; the Doctor gets elbowed in the head and is sent to the Emergency Room where a woman dressed only in a towel cuts in line claiming she has dog bites. The falsity of the “dog bites” claim has a significance that I sense but don’t quite grasp; it’s reflected in a flash-forward to Ricky’s own son. Something about things looking like one thing, but being another, misinterpretation, lying about what has hurt you, which may tie in with Dad’s explanation of Mom’s absence. It all left me feeling a bit off-balance.
It’s the kind of story that hangs with me, puzzling me rather than moving me. It’s a smooth and engrossing, if initially confusing, read, kind of like a train ride through a series of tunnels: glimpses of interesting things along the way but at the end of the ride I don’t have a real framework to hang them on as a whole. The Doctor is fascinating; I think he’s playing at honesty, and cheating when it gets hard. There’s a section where he talks about marrying a good-looking woman, and as narrated, Ricky thinks Dad is talking about Billy’s father, but I think it’s more ambiguous than that. And I wonder who has the subtle neurological or mental condition. Especially since Ricky enters the Air Force, then becomes a doctor himself, and has a little son who bites him. It’s a little cycle there.
This story was in the “head-crate” issue of McSweeney’s, as described here by Paul Debrasky of I Just Read About That:
With McSweeney’s #36, it’s like they made my conceptual ideal. Its weird packaging is fantastic and the contents are simply wonderful. But let’s start with the obvious: this issue comes in a box. And the box is drawn to look like a head. You open up the man’s head to get to the contents. Brilliant. The head is drawn by Matt Furie (with interior from Jules de Balincourt’s Power Flower.
There’s a line in the story, after the Doctor is injured: “The brain is in a box, son.” At the time, Ricky takes that to mean he has bleeding in his brain (and that Ricky is able to diagnose such a thing at age 11 is testament to the Doctor’s teaching ability). And the story came packed in a box… I think this may intrigue me most.
The author is a physician, and in the Contributor Notes describes having an experience similar to the one in the story: he was conked in the head playing wiffleball, and at the emergency room encountered a woman similar to the character. Presumably the characters are fictional. They do have a rather distinct air of quirky fictional people about them, almost sitcom characters – maybe that’s my biggest problem with this piece. They aren’t realistic enough to be one thing, nor outrageous enough to be another. But they do stay with me, still.