A good Sunday to you, Story366! Today I’m writing about “Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story” by Russell Banks, and really, I’m surprised I haven’t read this story before. As soon as I opened the book to the table of contents today—I always try to start with the title story, but there isn’t one in Success Stories (from Harper Perennial)—I saw it and immediately recognized its title. That usually means I’ve read it before, but after thinking about it, I realized it was part of The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories, the one with the American flag on it, edited by Tobias Wolff, the contemporary anthology that came out when I was in college, that all my professors used, one that I used early in my teaching career, when it was the it-anthology. I still have it on the shelf in my office here. Given how many times I’ve been assigned this anthology and how many times I’ve used it, you’re probably thinking that I should have read this story by now, that I should have read all the stories in the book, and I would have thought so, too. I checked, too, reading the first few pages, figuring I’d recognize it, but no. New story to me, so totally eligible for Story366.
Because that anthology was edited by Tobias Wolff, you’d expect there’d be a lot of writers and stories from that post-minimalist school of short fiction, that Carver-inspired brand of minimalism, of down-and-out characters, and unreliable narrators. I was in college in the early nineties, most of my professors learning to write and succeeding during the late seventies and into the eighties, so Carver was kind of the first and last word of what fiction was, was supposed to be. As an easily influenced eager-to-please student, I tried to be a minimalist, too, reading and trying to copy all of those Carver students and contemporaries like Richard Ford, Mona Simpson, Ann Beattie, and Wolff himself. My thesis me basically trying to rewrite Rock Springs.
As I see it, in that era, there were some definitive trademarks of these writers’ stories. Their characters were flawed, but the way they told it, they were the victims of circumstance, of a flawed system; the stories themselves were people just trying to smooth things over, explain away horrible judgment, try to talk their listeners, the readers, into believing they weren’t such bad people. In fact, what happened in the story wasn’t as important as the reader knowing that they weren’t to blame for all the bad stuff that happened as a direct result of their actions. Think of most stories in Rock Springs, primarily that title story, that character asking us in the end, What would you do?
“Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story” is maybe the best example of this approach to storytelling, to narration, as it seems like the whole story is one big apology from its narrator and central character to the world, him trying to work through the fact that he’d done a horrible thing, was a horrible person, and as a result, negatively affected the people around him. Early on and throughout the story, this narrator tells lies, and on top of that, tells us he’s telling us lies, starting with his name. As he tells his story—this is a very meta piece, as the narrator is aware that he’s relaying a tale—he uses “Ron” as the name of his character, says that this person is him, but is clear that his name may not be Ron. He also places the story in Concord, New Hampshire, doesn’t say whether or not it’s where the story takes place, but since stories have to take somewhere, Concord is as good a place as any. This is this tone that Ron (I’ll make it easy on myself and call him Ron from now on) uses throughout the piece: He’s not only going out of his way to be cryptic, but he’s pointing out how cryptic he’s being. What an interesting and wonderfully executed voice on Banks’ part.
What Ron (or not-Ron) is really doing in this story is separating himself from this horrible thing that he did. Sadly, though, trying to weasel out of it, plus telling us what he did, anyway, just makes him come off worse. What did Ron do? What’s the story? What Ron did was this: He dated a woman named Sarah Cole for a while, a woman he goes out of his way to describe as the ugliest woman he’d ever seen. He immediately recognized her as unattractive (according to him, remember: There are no pictures in this story, or aesthetic judgments on my part), but after a few chance meetings, he finds himself thinking about her, and eventually, falling for her. He makes a stab at spending a night together, and they almost do it, but there’s hesitation, as he simply won’t be nice enough to her for her to go all the way—she’s been hurt before, by her ex-husband, and is understandably defensive. Eventually, though, the two become lovers.
What becomes apparent, however, to both the reader and to Sarah Cole, is that Ron doesn’t want to be seen with her, doesn’t want anyone to know that he’s dating a person of her level of attractiveness. She calls him on it, describing how they always meet at his place, never go anywhere, how he’s reluctant to even go out for a drink, let alone meet her kids. The narrator … Ron … won’t admit this, making excuses, but it’s clear: He’s ashamed of her. It reminds me of Karen‘s favorite TV show, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, the episode when the Will Smith character dates guest star Queen Latifah, but doesn’t want anyone to know it (because she’s heavy set); despite the fact they hit it off stupendously, she dumps him, because she has too much self worth. I’m still kinda mad that the show didn’t end with him and her together, him growing as a person, making an overture, them living happily ever after.
Anyway, Ron is much worse than the Fresh Prince, just weasel of a guy who made the woman he loves feel like shit, and for some reason, tries to garner sympathy by telling this story, though with some kind of disconnect, separating himself from the person who would do such a thing. The plot isn’t overly complicated—just an example of male ego and misogynistic bullshit coming to life—but again, it’s the telling, this meta-unreliability, that makes the story so interesting, the character as bad of a liar as he is a human being. Heck, he even does it in the title, refuses to admit out-and-out love, declaring Sarah Cole a type of love instead of love. Bad man, great writer (who just got compared to an episode of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air … sorry, Russell Banks).
I probably should go back to that Wolff contemporary anthology and see if there’s anything else I never read, plus run down the stories, try to see if I’m being accurate, that the characters are mainly unreliable, people trying to talk themselves out of a bad rep. Regardless, I really enjoyed “Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story,” as I did the other stories I read from Success Stories (which, by the way, also featured unreliable narrators). Banks is probably more famous for his tragic novels than his stories, but his stories are also top notch. Glad to finally get to them.