May 20: “Puberty” by Patrick Somerville

Hey, there, Story366! Today was a pretty glorious day, as is every day you get to read short stories, right? Today was particularly glorious, though, because it was the first day of summer vacation for my oldest son, meaning all four of the core family were off and home today. To celebrate, Karen and I called the boys onto the couch and we had an extended—at least seven or eight minutes—session of hugging, tickling, and yelling, “Summer!” And really, what’s better than that, your whole family just laughing, nowhere to be? I did a bunch of shit at the office after that, but then came home and we went for ice cream, or more specifically, Pineapple Whip, this Springfield standard that serves two kinds of frozen sorbet-like juice product (it’s not ice cream, Karen just told me, no dairy content at all), pineapple and an alternating flavor. You can go online and find out what the flavor is at any of their three locations, and when I found out they had grape, I didn’t care that it was at the Pineapple Whip furthest from our house, across town. We loaded up the car and headed over. The pineapple is good, as are all the other flavors, but man, grape is where it’s at.

Between the hug fest and juice whip sojourn, I had the pleasure of reading a couple of stories from Patrick Somerville’s collection Trouble, out from Vintage. I know Patrick a bit as he’s also from Chicago, having seen him at events a bunch, maybe even sharing the stage for a big-bill reading or two. Oh, and he’s the nicest guy on earth, too. Trouble is one of Patrick’s two story collections, and he has a couple of novels as well. As of late, he’s been writing for various TV shows, including The Bridge, The Leftovers, and the most recent season of 24. He seems to be able to just flat-out write, as he’s pretty damn good at whatever he does.

It would be easy to write on either of the stories I read (Somerville writes long stories, both of them about thirty pages), but I’m focusing on “Puberty,” the opening story, instead of “Trouble and the Shadowy Death Blow,” which is the kinda-title story and kinda sci-fi, about a food scientist (pressurized fake cheese) who starts a killing spree at a job fair. I like that story a lot—it’s pretty whack—but hey, puberty. “How’s Patrick gonna torture some poor junior high kid?” I said upon starting the piece, and by no means does the author disappoint.

“Puberty” is about Brandon, a kid who’s not quite at puberty yet, but is counting the days. He’s tired of being not in puberty, as it’s getting to be the time when people will notice. Personally, I haven’t been physically gifted in many ways in this world, but one things that went my way was being the first boy in my school, on my sixth grade basketball team, to sprout chest and underarm (and other) hair. To me, it was weird and disorientating—of course it was—but while dressing for a basketball game, trying to hide my newfound hirsuteness and failing, guys gathered around and actually patted me on the back, pointing at the budding garden of my shame. Someone might have said, “Good job, Czyzy,” as if I’d just made the free throw on a three-point play. Being the first to hairiness probably has more to do with my Eastern European genes than anything, but hey, I’ll take it.

Anyway, Brandon just wants to be big. The story starts with a list he’s made, things he wants to have happen ASAP, including faster running, better dribbling, more height, and a bigger penis. Most of those have to do with playing basketball; or maybe all of them do—I’m not sure. Really, though, Brandon’s just a normal kid at that age, with normal problems, which are, of course, more than enough for any kid his age.

The story is also about Brandon’s dad, Ralph, and as a matter of fact, for a while, the story uses alternating points of view, one big hunk from Brandon, one from Ralph, back to Brandon, and so forth. Somerville juxtaposes the two cleverly, as Ralph is experiencing reverse puberty in a lot of ways: He’s lost his hair, he’s put on weight, and his sexual drive is in the toilet. Like Brandon has his age-related problems—teasing, bullies, uncontrollable hard-ons—Ralph has bill problems, marriage problems, work problems. These two guys are archetypes in some ways, but you’d never know it when reading: Somerville profiles his boys with both funny details and serious compassion. I laughed out loud when Ralph catches Brandon measuring his dick with a tape measure, but loved that Ralph didn’t embarrass him (more than he could help), instead warning him of just how quickly and violently that sharp, metal ruler would snap back into place if he would happen to let go. It’s not a Leave It to Beaver moment, but so incredibly practical.

The story’s plot—one of them, anyway—is incited when Ralph screws up a minor plumbing chore and the house’s basement fills with a couple of feet of pure sewage. Unfortunately for Brandon, the basement is where he hangs out, keeps his video game console and cartridges, all of which have to be trashed. Even worse, Ralph has to trudge through the muck to turn off a valve, and because this all happened when he was in the shower, he’s nude, hiding himself with a towel as he wades through the shit. After a series of unfortunate circumstances, Ralph and Brandon and Shelly (their wife/mom) are out on the lawn, trying to clean Ralph up with the hose. Then Ralph’s towel falls off. Then he bends over to pick it up. Then several of Brandon’s classmates (and adversaries) are walking by, headed to the bus stop, Ralph presenting to them like a dog in heat. By the time Brandon gets to school, everyone’s calling him “Son of Brown Star,” and by the end of the day, it’s shortened to “Brown Star,” Brandon’s name for the rest of the story (and possibly, the rest of his life).

That’s only one of the threads that Somerville presents in his complex narrative. Another chronicles a gym class accident. Another places him outside the window of a neighbor lady who likes to sit at her desk and write letters in the nude. Brandon’s puberty, and Ralph’s anti-puberty, are constantly being tested, and as common a theme as that is in fiction, everything is fresh and new. Somerville’s many skills include sleight of hand, because every time I thought I knew what was coming, something I never would have thought of comes instead.

I’m not sure if Patrick Somerville will write stories again, but me saying that is really based on nothing. It just seems like moving over to TV might mean the end of his short fiction endeavors, or at least that’s what I’ve heard other writers say. Heck, a lot of writers quit on short stories after they write a novel (which makes me sad, especially when they’re damn good at stories). Still, it’s awesome to have the rest of Trouble, as well as Patrick’s other books, just in case. Whatever he does, I’ll be watching.