When we think of teachable stories, we often reach deep into the rucksack of the literary past, pulling out classroom-tested stories that have worked their way into the canon. While there is obviously a ton to learn from these pieces, contemporary short story writers are also completing strong work built upon teachable literary foundations, while also finding fascinating ways to advance the form. In this space, we’ll highlight some of these more modern stories and explore a bit of what they have to teach us as we continue to do our part to push literature forward.
In “Boys Town” by Jim Shepard (published in The New Yorker; I first heard this story at the Tin House Writer’s Conference, so I’ll share a [different than the one I heard] clip of Jim reading it himself here [why, yes, the piece is that long]), a man stares down the scope of his rifle, waiting for police to turn the bend in the trail, and tells the story of his life to this point. He’s not even entirely sure he’ll shoot when he sees them: “I never know what I’m going to do next.”
That statement turns out to be pretty true for his past as well. He’s thirty-nine and living with his mother, divorced with a child he never sees, and he’s got a go-bag that he forgets to keep up-to-date and rifles stashed in the woods and he goes to ground every time (it happens often) the cops have cause to look for him. This particular time happens as a result of his infatuation with a woman named Janice, who made the incredibly egregious mistake of (checks notes) liking dogs. The narrator tries to woo her with dog-walking but is too terrified to do so, then eventually works up his nerve to knock on her door but sees a man there so he naturally decides to shoot up the house. Then he runs to the woods, where he is convinced there’s a massive manhunt on for him. There may be. If there is, he’s ready for them, or to give up when they come around the turn, he’s not sure yet.
This story is written in first person point of view, from a reflective present tense that only finally shows up at the very end when the story meets up with the narrator as he prepares for the climax of his life, whether he decides to shoot or not—technically this is relatively straightforward stuff, much like “The Pugilist at Rest,” which I discussed not long ago. Where this piece stands out, however, is that the narrator and the reader are looking at the same information and scanning it entirely differently; our narrator is looking at these moments and thinking himself justified, while the reader finds themselves increasingly horrified.
One way of reading this piece, and my preferred way of so doing, is to consider this the narrator’s manifesto. We are looking back not just at the events that brought him to this moment, but also the larger circumstances of his life; he is defending himself and his thought process, while also trying desperately to justify the things that he has done. From that lens, then, this is a piece that is being actively curated by the narrator in real-time. But this is not a traditional first-person narrator who is entirely inside their own mind and therefore easily the hero of their own story; this is a narrator who is keenly aware of the fact that he is being judged, and as a result he is doing all that he can to control the facts as they are released. Within that he is, fascinatingly enough, one-hundred-percent committed to convincing us that he actively made all the choices that have led him to this moment—(“People talk about, Oh, this kid’s sick and that kid’s bipolar and this and that and I always say, Well, does he piss all over himself? And the answer’s always no. That’s because he chooses to go to the bathroom. Because he knows better. He controls himself. People control what they do.”)—while also looking for any possible other upon whom he can assign blame.
For those of us learning from this story, the benefits of the first reflective present tense are perhaps obvious, but no less valuable: The narrator is free to tell his own story, and he can be clearly biased without tilting the bias of the story itself. The story is also free to wander from scene to scene, and from scene to idea and back. It doesn’t hurt that this is a character-driven piece with relatively little plot; because we’re already where we need to be, the piece doesn’t need a ton of crazy things happening, nor does it need puzzle pieces to fit together incredibly elegantly. We just need a character who can keep readers engaged, and who is willing to talk. And boy is this guy willing to talk.
Voice and Reader Choices
Much of the narrator’s efforts to convince us that we should give him empathy are voice-driven: He does everything he can to sound like, in old Presidential parlance, a guy you might want to get a beer with. We see a lot of dialogue that is tinged with a certain harsh sense of humor, he is willing to be self-deprecating in spots, and the language employed is casual but always willing to acknowledge larger societal factors at play. Perhaps most notably, he’s willing to do that “locker-room-talk” thing where he says uncouth crap that other people wouldn’t as a way of pretending that he’s willing to be totally honest. (“A guy in basic told me that girls who weren’t good-looking were the smart move because they were more grateful and weren’t as likely to run off with somebody, and that made sense to me. I met Stacy…”) Of course, he’s also whiny, entitled, unwilling to dive too deeply into the moments that could bring him actual empathy from his readers (he absolutely refuses to talk about what trauma he’s undergone in the military, for instance), and once you get past some of the rhetorical fireworks in here, he’s an absolutely terrible person for many reasons we’ll get into.
So then, far more than most narrators, the way you land on this character depends on how you respond to his voice. It’s always true that the reader controls the reading experience, but a quick look at this opening sentence reveals entirely how much the reader controls that in this piece: “Here’s the story of my life: whatever I did wasn’t good enough, anything I figured out I figured out too late, and whenever I tried to help I made things worse.”
So, do you believe that, or do you immediately reject it? Either is fair; this is the first sentence—we have no way yet of knowing anything about the dude other than what is written. You can take him straight or reject him summarily right from the beginning. The rest of the intro paragraph is the same.
Immediately after this opening paragraph (which the narrator has practiced many times, since his mother has a common retort to it), his mother cuts him off at the knees by blaming him exclusively for all those problems. They argue in witticisms, she accidentally calls the restaurant “Pizza Hunt,” and he curses at her—this is all played as half-joke, half-pathetic, and in my class experience teaching this piece, students almost always land fully on one side or the other of that divide. You’re either laughing at the craziness, or you can’t believe anyone would ever talk to their mother that way.
In other words, right from the start, he’s either won you over or he’s lost you. That’s essential to the story; this narrator is willing to lose some readers if he can get others to listen to him just a bit. Honestly, with the story he’s about to tell, he knows that’s the best he can hope for.
When this piece first came out, in those heady days of the early 20-teens, many of my students who were perhaps reading this admittedly-long story a little less closely than it requires would scan our narrator as a decent dude trying his best done wrong by society. The conversation unpacking all the places where this piece was actually pointing to the exact opposite, and the scary ease with which some of us as readers could buy into a man telling us that fiction about himself and his life, was one of and possibly the most informative lesson of this story. Now that we as a culture have had a few more heavy discussions about incels and lone wolfs and misplaced rage and other similar topics, that thread of this piece can feel a bit dated, perhaps even obvious. What will never go out of style, however, is Shepard’s incredible rhetorical wizardry, the way that he gives all necessary information for the narrator to verbally hang himself while also slipping right around some of the worst elements of it so that if you’re not paying incredibly close attention to every clause, you can read right over this guy telling you exactly who he is even as he thinks he’s garnering sympathy.
I’ve already discussed one perfect example, with that first paragraph that can be read with either empathy or disgust for the narrator, but there’s one moment that I always show to my students, who have invariably read right past it. Without the full scene, it might be a little more obvious, but here it is regardless:
“‘All right, all right,’ she said. ‘Don’t get excited.’
‘Don’t get excited,’ I said.
‘Don’t get excited,’ she said. ‘Put that down.'”
That’s near the end of a fairly long introductory section. Note that that’s the end of the active scene itself. We never come back to it. And it’s all dialogue. They’re just talking. Like I said, students read right past this.
But wait a minute, put what down? There’s no explanation. It’s never referred to again, far as I can see. And we get no imagery, no detail here. We’re in pure dialogue. If you have another idea, I’m all ears, but as I see it, we essentially just glossed over our narrator brandishing a weapon at a woman (his mother) in an argument. You know, as one apparently just casually does. But with the casual way it’s presented, and the fact that we slide away right after, plus the extremely careful choice to be in pure dialogue here, it’s incredibly hard for this one moment to stick for the reader. In another story, that would be a terrible thing; in a story where the narrator is trying to convince us that he’s not the worst human being alive, it’s pretty essential that he do everything he can to downplay this moment.
Because of Shepard’s mastery of misdirection on the sentence and phrase level, many things end up feeling hidden that are actually quite plainly stated. On the extreme end: our narrator assaults (at best; depending on your interpretation it could have been much, much worse) a woman on the trail, and most of my students don’t even catch this detail until we discuss it in class; in a much higher-profile moment, the narrator admits to pushing his wife down the stairs, but hides that admission at the end of a sentence where it’s an explanation for the actual focus of that sentence, and then uses extremely casual phrasing to make it seem like no big deal, and then immediately focuses on complications after the fact to divert the reader’s attention as quickly as possible—it’s an absolute master class in misdirection on a plot level, a concept level, and even a grammar level. On the slightly less extreme end of these examples: he’s a deadbeat dad who’s refusing to pay child support, information which he reveals to us only by complaining about the fact that he can’t see his child—and even then, through careful parsing of phrasing that the narrator tries to use to weasel out of this revelation, we can recognize that it’s his choice not to see the child anymore. And on the extremely less-extreme end: the narrator’s name is only mentioned once in the piece (if it’s given at all), delivered in passing on a pin that he’s given by a job.
This process of hiding happens in technical ways, too: My personal favorite is that often when the narrator gets nervous or reveals a little more than he intended to, the story uses that discomfort to either jump ideas (after “Put that down,” for instance, the narrator talks about his previous job and how he lost it—it’s related, but thematically at best), or to create a section break. This works nicely on a dual/meta level: It makes for ending moments that are full of tension and propel us emotionally forward in a story that doesn’t have a ton of action-oriented plot, but remembering that the conceit of the piece is built around our narrator telling this story to ostensibly convince someone of his rightness, it’s a great character-building choice to end these sections where the narrator is no longer comfortable speaking and/or no longer able to control the narrative in the ways he’s hoping to do.
The Other Boys Town
This is not an easy read (it’s long, and it’s dark, and the narrator’s attempts to be likeable are for many readers so transparent as to be gross from the outset), but it complicates itself even further by incorporating a film deeply into the piece’s DNA. Boys Town, the movie, is from 1938 and is a well-regarded classic, but it’s not exactly The Godfather or Citizen Kane as far as recognition levels—maybe I’m just uncultured (spoiler alert: I am), but I’d never heard of it before this story. And yet, it gets huge billing here.
Honestly, I’m not sure I’ve seen many pieces that incorporate another piece of media as thoroughly as this one does. I suppose Tao Lin’s Richard Yates should get a nod here, and sure if we open this up to things like The Da Vinci Code, and now that I think about it ekphrasis is an entire genre—okay, my point is collapsing.
Back on track: in terms of literary real estate, this film gets both the title AND the ending of this story, not to mention being the most pivotal memory from the narrator’s childhood. The final argument on which our narrator (and, in an opposite argument, Shepard) rests his case comes from an interpretation of the film; that genuinely blows my mind every time I read this story. I use country music in my own writing all the time, but stepping aside to let Willie or Merle make the last point in one of my stories? Man, that takes some serious intestinal fortitude. I’m trying to think of a quote to finish this up with, to bring the metaphor full-circle, and it is not working. Writing as well as Jim Shepard is HARD, my friends, and I have failed.
It would be easy to read this character as entirely awful, and I don’t blame anyone who chooses to do so, but since we are in first person POV, Shepard gives our narrator a few arguments that he can use in his own favor, a few moments that can allow for something like empathy if the reader feels so inclined.
There are the expected, perhaps even trite, details that we could reach for: lower socioeconomic status, living in a seemingly rundown rural area, a broken home, a mother who cares but perhaps not as much as the narrator wishes she would. The few memories we’re given are carefully curated in an attempt to gain empathy: First, during a childhood game, a girl refuses to play with him because of his disfigured teeth; second, in adulthood he goes to a dating event and the women with whom he has to sign-up don’t believe he’s capable of reading and writing. And there’s the fact that his mother is concerned he has PTSD; maybe that’s just a mother trying to come up with excuses, but our narrator is a war veteran who won’t talk about his experiences, so maybe she’s not entirely blowing smoke with that analysis.
But Shepard doesn’t reserve this pathos simply for the narrator (who, again, may not even be capable of evoking that in many readers). Perhaps the most powerful moment of the story, in my opinion, is a two-paragraph snippet of the narrator’s mother: “and she’s got the window down and she’s scooping snow from the side mirror and trying to throw it on her windshield to clean it.” They drive for blocks like this, and there’s a store that sells wiper fluid just down the street, but she doesn’t stop and she doesn’t ask for help and she doesn’t even get out of the car to try to do the task properly. Whether that’s desperation or emptiness or stupidity or having given up entirely, it’s a moment that I’ll never forget, made even more powerful by the fact that the empathy doesn’t get forced toward the narrator here.
Look, this story’s getting a little long in the tooth, I’ll admit it. For many of its points about the epidemic of modern-day masculinity and loneliness and violence, the conversation has moved on in stronger, more nuanced, more complicated ways. Articles have been written, and books now, about the overlooked rural America that made themselves loudly known in 2016.
But for an example of reflective first-person, voice-y, character-driven fiction where the reader and the speaker are seeing two different realities while receiving the exact same information…well, I realize that’s a pretty specific niche, but for that niche, you’re not going to find much better than this piece. The techniques this piece utilizes are absolutely worth throwing in the personal toolbox.
by Brandon Williams