BASS 2014: Nicole Cullen, “Long Tom Lookout” from Idaho Review Vol. XIII

The boy sleeps in the passenger seat. He’s five years old and too small to ride in the front, but Lauren is too tired to fight. He wears a bicycle helmet and her husband’s old high school letterman jacket, the letter decorated with four gold winged-foot pins. Lauren places her hand on the boy’s back to know he’s breathing, and she thinks what she’s been thinking since they left Texas – that she has no intention of being his mother…
The last few days on the road have been an experiment in cause and effect – the boy’s inability to communicate, his self-destructive behavior, his obsession with maps. In Kansas, when Lauren pried the road atlas from the boy’s hands, he banged his head against the passenger window. That’s when she bought him the bicycle helmet. When he wet himself in the tumult of a Colorado hailstorm, she put him in Pull-Ups and he’s worn them every day since. She’s ashamed to admit that for three days the boy has eaten only french fries, and that for the past three hundred miles he’s been doped up on NyQuil.

I don’t know much about kids, but I’m thinking it’s a good idea she has no intention of being his mother.

But I found it hard to be judgmental towards this woman. After all, if my husband had a child five years ago with another woman, and then while he was off in the Gulf of Mexico cleaning up an oil spill, some social worker showed up and handed the kid over to me, the official stepmother, since the Other Woman’s now in jail on drug charges, I might not be feeling all that maternal, either. Like Lauren says, “[W]e’re both cleaning up someone else’s mess.”

She’s in Idaho headed for her sister’s in present tense, left Texas for New Orleans in past tense, encountered the woman her husband is staying with when he’s not on the oil skimmer, encountered her own judgmental mother… if it sounds confusing (and it was for me) in a well-written story where re-reading and underlining is always an option, imagine what it feels like to a five-year-old autistic boy who’s living it in real time.

Long Tom Lookout is a forest fire prevention station. Lauren needs a job, and by prevailing on an old boyfriend (presumably; it’s never spelled out), she ends up as a lookout. The Boy comes with her.

The instructor says, “You are the eagle’s eyes.” She says, “It takes a certain kind of person to be a fire lookout. You must be quick and decisive. You must be patient and steadfast. And you must know how to be alone.” Lauren does not now if she is any of these things, but she writes down everything the woman says.

This is the second story where I’ve had trouble catching on. I’ve been a bit concerned about a possible decline in my cognitive processes lately, and I wonder if this is more of that. Or, if it’s part of what series editor Heidi Pitlor called the “sense of disorientation” she found in many stories she read this year. Though I never really got over my initial annoyance at the confusion, I was far more affected by the ending than I’d expected. I think that means it was a successful story.

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7 responses to “BASS 2014: Nicole Cullen, “Long Tom Lookout” from Idaho Review Vol. XIII

  1. This was the first one I didn’t connect with at all. I like these, because unlike ones where I instantly get what makes them good, I have to dig to find out what made someone choose this as one of the best of the year. I’ll learn something from that process.

  2. I didn’t notice the tense shifting at first, but I did notice that there seemed to be a lot of extraneous detail. I think these two things actually work together nicely to give the reader the feel of the boy.

    The world is whirling by, and he picks up on lots of details but isn’t quite sure which ones are the important ones. We get better at filtering as we get older, so it seems a little unfair that the reader could get the advantage by having the proper information given without the extraneous.

    I also think the story is a lot more focused than I initially thought. There are flashbacks and distractions, but they all contribute to the overall description of the relationship between the boy and woman.

    That might be the key to why this was considered so good. It has a loose, confusing feel, but upon reflection is a tight character study of this relationship.

    I feel like I should try this. I often get caught up in over-editing out all but the most critical things in my writing. I’ve been trained in minimalism too much.

    • We don’t really experience life sequentially, do we. We get a phone call with bad or good news, go to the store, wonder what to have for dinner, call someone and talk about the bad/good news, do something about it, and in between we’re dusting and letting out the cat and taking a shower and all kinds of stuff that has nothing to do with “the story” – which is what we’re going to do about the news, what it means to us, how it changes us. But they can all be connected to that, as well, if it means we cling to familiar routine or deliberately change it up, or we absentmindedly screw up and it turns out ok or not. Maybe that’s what a story does, it relates all the stuff that isn’t related. But that’s why so many stories, for me, end up flat – there’s too much meaning invested in turning on the shower or moving a figurine to dust under it. Maybe that’s where minimalism comes in – winnowing down what’s relevant, but still luxuriating in the details of that thing.

      My favorite Carver story (“Chef’s House”) is incredibly sparse, and when the details come in, you know they’re important. This story here just felt overloaded with details, and jumbled details at that, but yes, that’s how an autistic child might experience the world. It’s how a woman with a lot on her mind might experience it was well.

      I agree with you about having to “work” for stories being profitable. Wondering, “Why did the author do it that way?” is a fun game. Maybe that’s the difference between good and the best fiction: the best fiction has a solid reason.

    • Wait a minute – I just looked at your blog: you’re a mathematician???!? Oh god help me… 😉 I feel kind of silly that I missed the obvious reference in your screenname. You know I’m an idiot, right?

      • To be fair, many people I think look at my name and think my name is probably Hilbert and I was born in 1990 (neither is true). I keep meaning to change it, because most people know my real name anyway. I’m not trying to stay anonymous or anything.

      • Yes, a lot of people think I was born in 1972, which is one way to look nearly 20 years younger on the Internet. Deception wasn’t my intent either – it’s just a random favorite number.

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