BASS 2015: Justin Bigos, “Fingerprints” from McSweeney’s, #47

A story: A man, once a wealthy banker but now anonymous in rags, retired, richer than ever, wandered the streets of our city. He dug through trash, ate trash, slept on sidewalks, walked with a slight limp, as if he had years before suffered a minor stroke, or a terrible beating. Years before, in fact, his wife and children had died on a highway. After drinking away a decade of his life, the man quit alcohol, quit his job, quit his life. He became someone else. Do we still think it possible? To become someone else? We know this is just a story, so:

Justin Bigos wanted to write a story about storytelling, according to his Contributor Note. I have to admit, that wouldn’t have occurred to me as I was reading. Oh, it should have, given how many times story is referenced, including at the very beginning above. But the drama is so front and center – and the confusion – I didn’t have room to think about storytelling.

Confusion? Oh, yeah, that. It’s a story made up of fragments. Story fragments. Some of the are probably true. Some are probably… not lies, exactly, but confabulations, exaggerations. The kinds of things a child might think – might wish – about a chaotic father who’s no longer there. That’s a frequent theme in BASS stories, I’ve noticed – stories we tell ourselves. Family stories that may not be true (my family still tells a hilarious story about my visit to an ear doctor: pain, humiliation, powerlessness, the whole nine yards, but my family played his abusive treatment of me for laughs so they don’t have to admit they stood there and watched while I was traumatized). Cultural stories we know aren’t true (the American dream, my ass) but we can’t let go because we might have to face something ugly in ourselves. So we’re both right: it’s a story about stories, some of them exactly the kind of story a confused child might dream up, and the rest might be fragmented memories, augmented by conversations overheard, imagined, or avoided.

These stories make up a story about a family.

Another story: Sometime in your teens, in high school, around the time your father started showing up again, your house was robbed….
Also missing: two slices of bread, half a pound deli turkey, a handful of lettuce, a fat slice of tomato, and lots of mayonnaise, scooped out with fingers. The thief had left the dregs of his late-night snack on the kitchen table along with a rusty knife….And there was mayonnaise everywhere, oily mayonnaise fingerprints all over the house. On the jewelry box: fingerprints. On the coffee pot: fingerprints. On the toilet flush (but he didn’t flush): fingerprints. On the photo of my father and me on the desk (the father clearly drunk, the boy on his shoulders screaming, but look, maybe in July, into light, and the father, let’s face it, the father is happy): fingerprints. The cops dusted it all, didn’t need any of it. Asleep at the wheel. High as a kite.

So much happens in this section. First of all, language. Though it isn’t evident from the pared-down quote, Bigos uses the words “thief”, “stealing”, and “burglary”. There is a legal difference between these terms. Theft is the overall act of taking someone else’s property, and can apply to crimes in which there is no personal contact with the property (embezzlement, copyright infringement) as well as to robbery and burglary. Robbery is a crime committed against a person, and is classified as a violent crime whether or not actual injuries are inflicted. burglary is taking property from a structure, whether entry is forced or not. Now think about those definitions in the context of a boy whose father left, whose contact with him is intermittent and chaotic. Then think about those terms in the context of another vignette (true? invented? some of both?) about a custody battle, where a child is taken through a train window. It’s an astonishing scene, made more so by the echoes of the burglary already laid down.

I also noticed the poetry. Bigos is, primarily, a poet; this piece was started in grad school as a “try another genre” exercise; he put it aside and didn’t get back to fiction for ten years. The paragraph reads as poetry. For that matter, the entire story has a very distinctive voice to it; the paragraphs almost always have a closing cadence. You can watch Bigos read a substantial excerpt taped at Northern Arizona University’s Narrow Chimney reading series.

The episode is anchored around the father’s irregular, and clandestine, visits. Normally, a burglary would serve as an anchor point for other events – “I started fifth grade a few weeks after the burglary” or “The burglary was with me all summer.” But here, it’s the father’s visits, and non-visits, that anchor everything in this boy’s life, and along with the burglary runs through his life, his story, like a trail of bread crumbs.

But of course the biggest resonance was the fingerprints, emphasized by the title of the piece. The criminal left evidence everywhere. But it wasn’t needed, because he was stupid enough to get caught sleeping it off nearby in the car he stole from the family. Fingerprints everywhere: that’s a capsule characterization of this boy’s experience of his father if I ever heard one.

I feel incredible empathy for this boy, but I also feel empathy for the mother, sister, stepfather, and, yes, for the father. That’s what growing up, realizing your own flaws, does to you. While you know, these aren’t my flaws, you also know they very well could have been.

3 responses to “BASS 2015: Justin Bigos, “Fingerprints” from McSweeney’s, #47

  1. I’m not sure how you manage to come up with something non-stupid to say for everything you read. Sometimes, I’m a bad reader. With this story, I got interrupted several times while reading it and was too lazy to go back and start over to do it in one shot. Generally, if I don’t read a short story in one setting, I miss the whole impact of it. When I came back to reading it, I had forgotten there was a father and a stepfather, and I was all confused. Vonnegut once said that “Readers are selfish and have no compulsion to be decent about anything.” Sometimes, I have to admit, that’s me. I think about this a lot as a writer trying to get published. How often are my stories being read politely? That’s why I try to be a good audience when I read. But sometimes I fail. I did on this story.

    • Hey, thanks Jake, though I’m never sure anything I’m writing is non-stupid. Blogging has certainly forced me to come up with something. When I run into one of those WTF stories, I have to take a different angle and figure out some way to approach it. I don’t always succeed (as with tomorrow’s story, for instance), but I’ve learned how to sometimes go beyond “I don’t like this” into “What is the author doing, and why.” I usually end up liking a bewildering story more because of it.

      I will never understand why it’s fine for some stories to be confusing, and for others to get sent back. I keep hoping I’ll figure it out.

  2. Pingback: Exit (BASS 2015) | A Just Recompense

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