This week, we’ll be examining some of our favorite short stories and discussing the craft elements that make them so memorable. Today, author David James Poissant walks us through the brilliant story, “Heaven” by Steven Barthelme.
“The story is wild, funny, fierce. It’s imaginative. But those are just adjectives. What, then, makes this story so solid, in terms of craft? I’m glad you asked.”
Discussed by David James Poissant
Writing stories is hard. That’s the second thing I tell beginning writers on the first day of workshop. The first thing I tell them is that they need to read more. Even if they already read a book a week, they could probably be reading more. Ten years ago, I felt less compelled to say this, but, now that everyone has everyone else’s Netflix, Hulu, and HBO GO passwords, I get the distinct impression that everyone, myself included, is reading less than he or she used to. And, the less we read, the less well we write. I believe that.
So, writing stories is hard. I say this, then I lead my fellow writers through a story I admire, paragraph by paragraph, talking, all the while, about what makes a great story great. Surefire winners have included Melanie Rae Thon’s “Xmas, Jamaica Plain,” Bret Anthony Johnston’s “Caiman,” Amy Hempel’s “The Harvest,” Ethan Canin’s “Emperor of the Air,” Danielle Evans’s “Virgins,” and Justin Torres’s “We Wanted More.” Any one of these serves as an ideal primer on story structure and the work that good fiction requires at the sentence level. Along with these, I’ve also had success with one of my favorite short stories: “Heaven,” by Steven Barthelme. Full disclosure: I don’t know Steven Barthelme, nor have I met the man. I just love his stories.
In “Heaven,” first published in The Atlantic Monthly, and later reprinted in the collection Hush Hush (Melville House, 2012), a deceased woman, Bo, tells us about her relationship with a lothario. The man, referred to only as “the poet,” sleeps with his students and uses people for his own aims. The narrator sums up the poet’s character nicely: “With the help of a wealthy coal widow he started The New Bituminous Review and filled it with uncanny and haunting work by the editors of other magazines. Then for three years he fearlessly walked up and down Sixth Avenue, filling out grant applications, winning nine.” He is an opportunist. He is a womanizer who “sleeps with women by the dozens.” As for his poetry, the speaker tells us, “He is thought by poetry authorities to be a good poet, but what do they know? I love him, but this does not blind me to his poetry. In the poem he wrote about me after my death, I wrote the only good line. He was quoting me, but the attribution was somewhat vague. I was dead twenty-one minutes before he got to the typewriter.” In short, the poet is not a good guy.
Bo, freshly dead, tells us her story from Heaven, which “resembles a very large Days Inn,” where Jesus and God quarrel often, and where Jesus carries a red ledger of the sins for which residents must atone. (Here, there is no Hell, an idea God and Jesus laugh about, saying, “‘Who could have known that they’d take that seriously?’”)
The story is wild, funny, fierce. It’s imaginative. But those are just adjectives. What, then, makes this story so solid, in terms of craft? I’m glad you asked. Here’s what’s working, at least for me:
1. Imagery: I can’t tell you how often I read the work of beginning writers, love the stories, but feel disappointed because I can’t see anything. There tends, in student work, to be a deficit of tangible, concrete imagery and sensory detail. Without these, the reader feels unmoored from the story. The characters seem to float in space. With “Heaven,” there is no such confusion. Here, the poet “delicately picks his nose” (a rare, fantastic use of a carefully-deployed adverb); Jesus has “beautiful, blue” eyes and, weirdly, wears a leather hat; the speaker tells us that “in heaven Scotch is blessedly harmless, and my back has finally stopped hurting,” two nice details; as for breakfast, “in the lobby in the morning an enormously long white tablecloth appears, with coffee and one lemon Danish, which renews itself endlessly”; at one point, Jesus doesn’t just hand Bo a drink, he hands her a “frigid” can of lemonade from a vending machine. All of these count as the kind of concrete, authenticating details that make a setting or character come more vividly to life for the reader.
2. Humor: Even in a story about death and cruelty, there is often room for a laugh or two. Exhibit A: “Here is what the poet says in the classroom: ‘Be inexplicable, but not inexplicatable. Be emendatious but not cementatious (Not in my dictionary; suspect that’s a coinage). Be abominable yet abdominal. Make it newt. (I hear poorly, so this could have been ‘Make it new,’ although he loathes Pound; it may have been ‘Make a note’ sometimes he feigns a boffo French accent.) Oh, and see me after class, Caitlin, Feta, An Li, Eschscholzia, Daisy, Zinnia, Dahlia.’” Okay, so it’s not laugh-out-loud funny, but it’s that kind of smart-mean-funny that’s pretty funny nevertheless.
3. Voice/Interiority: #2 dovetails nicely here. Barthelme’s given Bo a winning voice: smart, sharp, clipped, no-nonsense. She possesses a cutting, deadpan sense of humor (blink, and you’ll miss it). What does the poet write about? Bo tells us: “A number of his newest poems shockingly unmask the pylorus, where a valve inextricably links man’s stomach to his small intestine.” This strikes me as a very fancy, very funny way of telling us that the poet is full of shit. Bo is also unashamedly self-aware: “My death came about in this way: I poisoned myself, with loathing. And envy, there was some envy. Mostly loathing.” This is not the voice of an unreliable narrator. Unreliable narrators are fine, but here is a great example of a character unafraid to admit that she both loves and loathes this man. The contradiction is beautifully expressed and very human. Complicated emotions make for complicated, multidimensional characters, and that’s never a bad thing in fiction.
4. The Reversal We’ve Been Waiting For: It’s easy to write a story that sits in judgment of one of its characters. It’s easy to write down to anyone. What’s harder is the act of extracting real empathy from the reader, giving the reader an utterly unlikeable character, then humanizing him or her for us. George Saunders is the king of this, but Barthelme’s no slouch in this department. And he makes his job all the more difficult by giving us such an unlikeable character. Two paragraphs from the story’s end, the poet’s been given zero redeemable qualities. Then, Bo surprises us with this: “The poet wants to write good poetry, I know he does. He does not think of himself as a dull, careerist predator and sham. He could be a counterfeit and write great poetry at the same time, perhaps. He wants to know awe. He wants to have important things to say to his fellows, to make cold souls warm, to ease hurt, to praise love, to give hope to the despairing and companion to the lonely, to hold the breath of wisdom in his hand for an instant, to add to what we have. He wants to see.” Is this too little too late? Not for me, it isn’t. Sure, the story seems to turn on a dime, but the best stories often do. They keep you laughing right up to the second they pull the rug out from under you. (Think of Lorrie Moore, who does this better than just about anyone.) Beyond the gorgeous prose, the passage above opens the story up. It implicates the reader. With Bo’s encouragement, we’ve spent pages judging and hating the poet. We’ve reduced him to a stereotype, a cartoon. But the poet’s still human, the story argues. He has a soul. The poet may be a joke, a predator, a sham, a danger to himself and others, but there’s still something there, some unexplored potential for goodness. This may be an overly generous view of humanity. But, I’m all for the generous view. And what an ending. Great stories do this. They surprise and delight. They offer an ending that is, in the words of Flannery O’Connor, both “surprising and inevitable.” An ending like this is, in my opinion, what separates a great story from the merely good.
But, don’t take my word for it. Read the story for yourself, and see what you think. Has Barthelme earned that ending? Are the images as vivid as I claim? Is the voice really that intoxicating? I say yes, yes, and yes. You may say no. But you won’t know if you don’t read. Which returns me to my opening salvo: Read. Read this story. Read widely. The more you read, and the more you think about the writer’s craft while reading (what we often refer to as “learning to read like a writer”), the closer you’ll come to producing great stories of your own.
David James Poissant’s stories and essays have appeared in The Atlantic, The Chicago Tribune, Glimmer Train, The New York Times, One Story, Playboy, Ploughshares, The Southern Review, and in the New Stories from the South and Best New American Voices anthologies. His writing has been awarded the Matt Clark Prize, the George Garrett Fiction Award, the RopeWalk Fiction Chapbook Prize, the GLCA New Writers Award, and the Alice White Reeves Memorial Award from the National Society of Arts & Letters, as well as awards from The Chicago Tribune and The Atlantic Monthly and Playboy magazines. He teaches in the MFA program at the University of Central Florida and lives in Orlando with his wife and daughters. His debut short story collection, The Heaven of Animals, was published by Simon & Schuster in 2014. He is currently at work on a novel, which is also forthcoming from Simon & Schuster.