“Little Frogs in a Ditch” by Tim Gautreaux
Tim Gautreaux’s short story “Little Frogs in a Ditch,” from his book of short stories entitled Same Place, Same Things, is entertaining, darkly funny, smart, and life-affirming, all at the same time. I was astonished at what Gautreaux was able to do with such few pages. He not only tells a fascinating story and develops a setting that truly feels lived in, but he created a string of well-drawn, memorable characters. Even though we’ve all met somebody like the grandfather, and certainly like Lenny — the car salesman comparison mentioned in the last scene is apt — the characters never feel like stereotypes. Lenny’s parents have abandoned him, leaving his cranky grandfather to take care of him — and the old man is rightfully angry about his grandson’s new business venture. The dynamic between the two characters is fascinating, because obviously the grandfather isn’t a bad guy — he wants Lenny to succeed — but in the end he knows that Lenny is going to struggle for many years to come. Lenny likes to find the easy answer to every question, and his business idea selling birds to those who don’t know any better, is something he understands is not the brightest idea in the world, but it’s something that will make him money, and in the short term, that’s what’s most important
An element of language that Gautreaux handles well throughout the piece is his extraordinary ear for dialogue. The pacing of the short story zips along by the scenes that are heavy with dialogue, and they are all a delight to read. He not only creates dialogue that feels authentic to the characters themselves — there’s a higher sense of intelligence and thoughtfulness to the grandfather, for instance, than Lenny — but the dialogue also feels authentic to the time and place, which is a very difficult task to capture as a writer. But Gautreaux succeeds in this aspect, transporting us to a small town where many aren’t as educated as they could be, and many say “ain’t” instead of “isn’t,” and have a habit of leaving the “n” off the end of many words when they speak. Take for example some of the dialogue on page 138 between Lenny and Mr. Meyer. “Whatcha got in the suitcase, boy?” “The old man and me, we had a discussion.” “You mean, he throwed your ass on the street.” And then later: “Naw, Lenny.” All of this use of language in the dialogue is not accidental; Gautreaux understands that to bring this town to life, to make these characters ring one hundred percent true, he has to make the dialogue as authentic to this place as possible. And in this respect, the author succeeds tremendously.
Lastly, I appreciated that, while the POV was technically third person, the author told the majority of this story from the point of view of the grandfather. While Lenny might be the more flawed, desperate, let’s-keep-reading-and-wait-for-a-train-wreck character, the grandfather is really the heard and soul of the piece. It wouldn’t have worked to have to have the story told from the first person perspective of the grandfather, because there need to be moments with Lenny by himself or off with other people, to bring more of his character and his plights to life. But Gautreux is smart to go more into the head of the old man than anyone else, because he is by far the most down-to-earth and common sense eyes in this story. I love the scenes when he tells Lenny exactly what’s on his mind, and what Lenny needs to do to make up for his wrongs — even though he’s old, he’s a strong and confident. And he provides the perfect eyes as a way into this great tale.
“Grounded” by Claire Davis
Claire Davis’s short story “Grounded,” from her book of short stories entitled Labors of the Heart, is a very successful piece that includes a sharply drawn protagonist, successful and subtle transitions into backstory, sparkling prose, true-to-life dialogue, and laces of deft humor. The story opens fairly routinely, with a mother stopping her work to run after her rebellious son in the driveway and remind him to go back inside the house, that he’s grounded, apparently forever. But author Davis isn’t interested in heading into typical maudlin territory, having the son and mother duke it out behind closed doors. Instead, she’s interested in telling a story of a wounded woman, who’s flawed and confused and tired, with no clue how to connect to her fifteen-year-old son.
One element I enjoyed in this twenty-five-page story was the interweaving of backstory into the current narrative to serve the character development. It can be difficult for an author to add in elements of a character’s backstory in a way that doesn’t feel contrived or forced, especially in a short story, but Davis is effective in this manner. Take for example the way Davis tells the reader that the main character Wava’s parents died in a car accident. She asks her son Kyle if he’s ever seen something sizable die up close, and he asks if roadkills count. In the beginning of the next paragraph, Davis writes, “She nodded and thought about her parents, but that was unfair. They had been in the car.” In these two sentences we’re told in an unusual, creative way that Wava’s parents were killed tragically, and are no longer part of her life. Davis gives the reader nuggets of information about Wava’s unhappy state in life, not in the way we expect her to, but in a way that surprises us: such makes for a richer reading experience.
Davis’s prose throughout the story are well thought out and constructed, with startling use of language. Take for example this sentence, which includes various rhymes: “A flock of peacocks roasted on roofs, shat on windshields and dismembered fenders.” Take away story, character, tension, pacing, and the reader still would have sentences to grin over. But even more rewarding than her choice of words is her gift for putting the reader in a time and place. The author clearly knows Montana well, and through her language, we are transported to all the places Wava and Kyle travel to. From the True Value Hardware store, to the expansive island with the millionaire who killed himself, to the elk and wildlife preserve, the reader gets a quality glimpse into the back-roads of Montana. Furthermore, the constant references to Wava’s sweat reminds the reader that the characters are traveling by car and foot not in winter or fall, but in warm, sticky July.
In addition, I was surprised and elated to find humor sprinkled throughout what in another author’s hands could have been a melodramatic tale. I love that Wava and Kyle both have goals in mind but neither has very much interest in reaching them; Kyle’s goal is to run away, but he lets his mother stay close behind, and Wava’s goal is to ground her son, yet she doesn’t go out of her way to keep her son from escaping her grasp. At one point an unnamed woman in the hardware store nods to Wava and tells her, “It’s a hard road.” Wava’s response: “You got something to do?” Davis does a fine job building Wava as a wounded soul still trying to find her path in life, and sticking in these moments of humor only enhance the three-dimensional aspects of this complex character.
“Fire Watch” by Connie Willis
Connie Willis’s short story “Fire Watch,” from her book of short stories entitled The Winds of Marble Arch, and Other Stories, is a fascinating period piece that truly astounded me with its great details, sense of place, and amazing, thought-provoking language. I love reading fiction that transports you to another time and place, and “Fire Watch” did that for me. Willis has an incredibly engaging voice, which she gives to the protagonist of this unique piece, aptly named Bartholomew, who is not shy in his thoughts about the people he encounters and is confident and courageous in his various adventures. I loved the way Willis really puts you inside his head. Take, for example, the two bottom paragraphs on page 230, in which Bartholomew explains to the reader in specific and fascination fashion the problems with memory-assistance drugs. This material could feel too expository or overbearing, but not here, as she has already at this point developed a voice and point of view for the character. Similarly, the details that set the time and place are so extraordinary, that one has to imagine the great research Willis had to do to fully take charge of a story like this. Take page 232 for example, which references British money and the Tube, names like Kivrin and Langby, the Verger of the Pillow, hoity-toity, the losing of a stone, and the following sentence: “You made us miss our tea, luv.” For a story like this to work, we need to believe in the setting, and rarely before have I seen an author so fully immerse the reader in a time and place.
I also appreciated the diary format of the story, which in the wrong hands can make a tale monotonous and too episodic, with a tendency not to tie a story together but to show specific moments of a character’s life and journey. Such is not the case with Willis. She uses the journal entry format — the dates of which span from September 20, all the way to January 3 — to increase the stakes and tension of Bartholomew’s mission. It reminded me in a way of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which also used a similar format. Another way Willis uses the diary entry format to great effect is in the way she expands on certain sections, then breezes over other ones. There will be an entry that spans several pages, like December 30, which starts on page 253 and ends on page 258. And then there will be others, like October 25, which is a mere three sentences at the top of page 244. This method engages us to its greatest extent. Instead of having a mere five long passages, or a hundred short paragraphs that would make the story feel too much like quick anecdotes, Willis blends the two and manages to constantly surprise us, both in Bartholomew’s adventures and in the very lengths of the various passages. She knows how to hold out attention from beginning to end, and such a gift is necessary, especially in telling a dense, thought-provoking story like this one.
Lastly, I loved the humor spread out throughout the story. The material with the cat made me laugh out loud. The whimsical nature of this story I found very effective and engaging. I loved the diary entry on October 4, about Bartholomew’s struggle to catch the cat, as he desperately tries to swing a bucket but ends up merely dropping it and watching as it rolls against the pillars. Langby’s dry response to Bartholomew’s attempt — “That’s no way to catch a cat” — was perfect. Willis has a tremendous gift with comedy, and she brought this element of her writing out to great effect in “Fire Watch.”
The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains, by Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman’s short story “The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains” is a fascinating fantasy story that in just a short amount of pages takes us on a compelling, surprising journey, and gives us a glimpse into an unusual relationship between two very different men. I have been interested in reading more of Gaiman’s work ever since I read The Graveyard Book — both Coraline and American Gods sit on my shelf — and I was ecstatic to have the opportunity to read a short story from him, one that I had never even heard of before. I was thrilled to be dropped into another magical Gaiman world, with this one rich enough to be worthy of a novel all its own. I really enjoyed this story!
The first element I enjoyed in this story was the gorgeous use of setting throughout, making the duo’s adventure feel similar to a sweeping fantasy tale like J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Gaiman’s descriptions of setting throughout the story are beautiful, and really set the scene for the turbulent adventure. I especially loved the details of the surrounding mountains right after the duo set off on their journey by foot: “The mountains between the rest of the world and the coast are gradual hills, visible from a distance as gentle, purple, hazy things, like clouds. They seem inviting.” His descriptions of snow on the peaks and the long jetty of black stones in the Misty Isle and low scudding clouds of gray and white and black, all give you a great sense of each place they visit. One of the hardest things to do in a short story is to give just the right amount of setting description, and Gaiman does an excellent job here in this respect.
I also fell immediately in love with the main character, and my favorite aspect of him was his short stature. I haven’t read very much fiction told from the first person perspective of an unusually short older man, and I found this character trait unique and at times very funny. It’s not like he tries to ignore his height, after all; it comes up time and time again. He makes mention of it in the very first scene: “I am a small man. But a man, nonetheless.” And then it’s referred to multiple times throughout the journey, like on page 51, when he says, “You, with your hand, and me, only a little man,” and then later on that page, with the very funny, “I am but a little man, good lady, no bigger than a child, you could send me flying with a blow.” This aspect to his character makes him relatable, and it brings the reader closer to his character and his motivations. It also makes us wonder if he will survive the perilous journey; he’s not a strong, seven-foot tall burly man, after all. He’s our eyes and ears to this story, and we worry for him throughout pages. We want him to find the cave, find exactly what he’s looking for.
The last element I appreciated in the story was the reveal of the cave itself. A journey to a cave has been devices in stories I’ve read and films I’ve seen before, and for good reason — there’s very few things in this world more mysterious than dark, ancient caves. Gaiman sets up the cave to be something integral to the story and to the main character’s journey, and he brings the setting to life beautifully. For a long time we think we’ll see a room filled with bars of gold, but we get something else entirely, and Gaiman must be applauded for being unpredictable. It’s so creepy in there: the dripping of water, the whispers that float across the damp, darkened area. Gaiman has crafted a stunning story here and makes us want to seek out more of his work. What a brilliant writer!