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 “Uncle Rock” by Dagoberto Gilb, from The New Yorker, we follow a kid named Erick as he navigates life around the various men his mother date. They all bring value in various ways: Some own companies where he is allowed to explore, others give the family gifts they could never have afforded otherwise, and others simply exude money and the potential for a rising standard of living. As much as anything though, he appreciates that once they take his mother out for a date, he no longer has to be anyone’s focus; he gets to sit on the floor and watch TV (on a television provided by one of the men) while eating ice cream.
But then there’s Roque, a man with no flashy car, no employees, nothing but a sincere interest in Erick’s mother. He stays around through all the men that she dates, waiting for his chance. And Roque cares so deeply about Erick’s mother that he is willing to find out what Erick likes. They go to a baseball game—a Dodgers game, no less, in the heyday of Fernando Valenzuela—and a lovely time is had by all. Erick even catches a home run ball.
At the end of the game, Erick tries to get his ball autographed by some players. They do so, but in return one of the players slides him a note for his mother—the offer is clear, as clear as the money, the fame, and the bragging rights that could come from such an opportunity. The decision is given to Erick (although what decision that is, exactly, is left to the reader to a certain extent), and he chooses to leave the note behind, accepting Roque’s place with his mother.
This story is written in close third, following Erick. We are in the storyteller’s past tense, that floating always time that dominates novels and functions as a de facto present moment. We only have one scene that is firmly rooted in time: the baseball game and its aftermath. Our setting is Los Angeles, and our characters are Mexican-American. Analysis is for many parts of this story unnecessary: Erick tells us what he’s thinking, and he tells us why, all the way up until the climactic decision point at the end of the story where he drops the note. Uncle Rock carries the title of the story not because he is the most important character (indeed, he’s the character we know least), but because he is the locus of Erick’s decisions: Is Roque good enough for his mother, can Roque provide in ways that Erick finds valuable, is he willing to accept and open up to the man, and how Erick thinks his mother interacts with Roque versus the other men she has seen.
The question of Roque’s (and those of his mother’s men in general) value to Erick is brought up early in the story, and functions as the throughline of the piece, because Erick has lied to a friend of his, Albert, stating that his mother is married to an engineer and that Roque is his uncle rather than a new love interest. We understand from this lie that Erick values the money and society these men provide, and Roque is immediately cast as lesser-than. Only with Erick’s focuses laid bare, and the clear setup of the challenge Roque must overcome, does the story then finally jump into real time and begin with the scene-work.
The Technical Lessons
Probably obvious from the fact that I’m writing about the piece, but there are a lot of things that work incredibly well on a technical level. Many of them are incredibly smart small choices, so I want to spend just a few quick moments going through them before I jump to what in my mind makes this such a standout piece.
Perhaps the most important technical lesson for us as writers comes from the use of setting. We rarely if ever stop to fully describe the setting on any level—geographically, there’s no deep exploration of Los Angeles, and the past setting of Mexico is described in broad strokes via Erick’s memories of stories his mother tells. On a closer-in level, the same is true of the places we inhabit: The nearest we get to seeing the space of any room is early in the piece when Erick’s habit is discussed of sitting on the floor right beside the television. So how is setting presented to us? Through Erick’s interest? He loves baseball, and he knows every player on the Dodgers—oh, okay, so we’re in Los Angeles. This is a great technique because of its economy: We’re getting character notes on Erick, we’re getting a bit of setting, we’re getting time period when he mentions specific players by name, and we’re gaining some deeper feel of the world (so that this isn’t just about mom/Erick/Roque, but also about all of them outside of this very tiny moment) when he dives into information about the players.
On a plot level, the piece is as much setup as it is action; there is only a single scene in the entire story, and it takes up the final paragraphs of the story. Before that, the story spends entire paragraphs on the problem that interlace the piece: the men interested in his mother, Erick being ignored by them, the way they thought their money entitled them to both his mother’s time and to Erick’s, the failures of his mother to marry any of them, her loss of jobs when the relationships fell apart, and what exactly is needed for Erick to be onboard with any of the men vying for his mother’s affection. This last concern is the one that pushes us into scene finally, as Roque has to prove himself, but because this story is about all of those other things, most of which can’t actually be solved, the story lets itself sit in explanation for quite a while. This is a technique that might get browbeat in lower-level workshops where we spam the phrase “show don’t tell” for every possible issue, but it makes complete sense here; we get to stay with Erick long enough to really see the things with which he’s struggling, and for which there is no easy answer.
On a language level, the story occasionally utilizes Spanish text without translation, both in the narrative and in dialogue (showing up in dialogue also helps a bit with setting). This isn’t exactly controversial anymore, but it’s always nice to repeat for us as younger writers: It’s far more important to be true to the characters than it is to handhold the reader. Let the reader do some work to figure out what papitas are, if they don’t already know, the same as we’d expect them to do if they didn’t know some five-dollar word in English.
And then, Erick is mentioned a few times in the piece as not speaking. It’s there clearly, but always in the background: He talks to his mother, we’re told, but we don’t actually see him do it. He absolutely refuses to speak around any of the men. And then boom, the final line of the story, he gets his one and only line of dialogue. Such a great technique, to let him finally take over the story in that final moment, and to clearly underline his acceptance of Roque with a clear action. The story didn’t dwell on it anywhere near enough to beat us over the head with it, but man, if you want an example of effective modern versions of something like symbolism, there you go—opening the mouth and opening oneself up, speaking up in the moment he’s finally making a decision, answering the question his mother asked before about whether Roque might stick around, and just straight-up literally finally choosing to speak for himself rather than let others (his mother, here) decide his fate.
The Introspective Lesson
While there is a ton to learn on a craft level, my fascination with this story stems from the varied interpretations of the mother that I’ve seen through my many classroom discussions of the piece. All we know about her is that she dates a lot of men, and most of those men are successful. The men hitting on her often takes her away from her son. We can add onto that an awareness of them as immigrants, and the jobs that she’s constantly gaining and losing might suggest a certain expectation of class. Other than that, the story is basically silent on her, because Erick is far more deeply focused on all the men, and then particularly on Roque, as they come to try their hand at taking his mother from him.
So then, with those facts before us, what does a reader make of this mother? Is she a gold-digger of the highest magnitude, flitting from man to man until she can find one to cling onto? Or is she trying to solidify a future for her and her son, an immigrant with limited means using the tools at her disposal to make sure Erick will be safe and comfortable? Of course it’s important to point out as well that the opening paragraph makes it clear that men are constantly throwing themselves at her; perhaps she’d rather just be living her life with Erick and can’t get out of the way of these interactions.
From there, we can ask similar questions of Erick’s motivations with the note. When he chooses not to give it to his mother, what is he thinking in that moment? Yes, he’s choosing to accept Roque, or at least not to undermine him, but play out the string: What happens if he gives that note to his mother? Perhaps she drops Roque again, reaching for the new opportunity. If Erick thinks she would do that, there are two possibilities: He could think she would because she’s always reaching for the glittery new thing, the bigger and better and richer; or perhaps he thinks she’s doing that in order to give them a better life, to continue moving upward with the limited cards she’s been dealt. And if he thinks it’s the latter and chooses Roque over that upward mobility, well, that says something very specific about Erick and how we view him. If we read him as the former, as saving his mother from her desires, that changes Erick, his mother, and this story completely.
To be clear, I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer to this. My students have been all over the board on what they think is happening, who they side with, and even exactly how much of a right to make that decision Erick has at the end. He is, after all, choosing her love life for her to a certain degree. Instead of telling us something about the story, this instead becomes a litmus test for ourselves: What are we considering when we make our judgments of a character? What pushes us as readers to think positively or negatively about a character? Where does that come from, and why do those details push us specifically in that direction? For young writers, these kinds of self-considerations lead us to questions about what we value most in a story, and that can then push us to think about what exactly we include in our pieces to build our characters in the ways we intend and the ways that we can and can’t control reader responses.
There is a ton to take away from this story as a young writer, but the most powerful lesson is on complexity. We live in a world that is reaching constantly for the didactic, and we here at The Masters Review are reading stories every day that aim for moralistic epiphanies or enforced preaching. There is room for that, of course. But the glory of fiction like this is that it allows for many readings, for the reader to bring their own biases to bear and then consider why they hold those biases. I don’t care where you land on the mother and her motivations, or on Erick and how he ends the piece. I’m far more interested in what specifically led you to that decision, and the conversation that stems from that around how you can use that awareness of expectations to reconsider your own characters and details.
by Brandon Williams