June 5: “Planetarium” by Walter Kirn

What’s up, Story366? It was a fine Sunday, one of those ideal days when I’ve had the chance to do some writing, some reading, spend some time with my family, and also got to laze around and watch baseball, falling asleep with my cat on my lap, waking with each crack of the bat. Sadly, the Cubs couldn’t pull it off today, so it wasn’t ideal ideal, but everything else went pretty perfectly. I wish at least as good of a day for all of you.

Today I got to read from Walter Kirn’s collection My Hard Bargain, from Washington Square Press, a really wonderful book of stories that I enjoyed a great deal. Kirn’s writing is smooth and easy, and his stories felt familiar even though I’d never read them before, or lived any of the lives of his characters. I met Kirn once, one of those nights at AWP where you’re sitting in a hotel room talking to someone, having drinks, a few hours flying by, then you find out the next day you were talking to someone famous. I had a night like that in New York with Kirn, who was a friend of a friend of a friend, the four of us having a great conversation about writing. I didn’t know he was Walter Kirn until the next day, but knew that whomever he was, he was damn smart. One of those nights I’ll always remember.

“Planetarium” is the first story in My Hard Bargain, the first story I read of three. The second, “On Set-Aside,” is about a farmer taking a year off while his dad builds a petting zoo on his property.  The third, the title story, “My Hard Bargain,” is about a family’s move from Wisconsin to Arizona. Both are solid pieces, but I was most taken by that first story, probably because I recognized the character, saw more of myself in him than most stories that I read.

But wait: Just two paragraphs ago, I said the stories were familiar even though I’d never lived them, so how could I be identifying with a character? Fair enough. The protagonist in “Planetarium” is a kid, junior high level, who plays basketball for his Mormon school. His church has a new bishop, Elder Johanssen, who’s also the basketball coach. The boys like Elder Johanssen, even though he’s stuck in his playing days for BYU. They play ball for him, but because he’s their bishop, they also have to report their sins to him, once a month. Kirn points out that this kid isn’t Catholic—like I was—no screen, no anonymity, no freedom for the confessor to steer the conversation. Elder Johanssen gets to ask questions about what they did and the boys have to say yes or no. The bishop starts with silly questions, like if the boys killed anyone or robbed any liquor stores, but then it gets serious: He asks the boys if they masturbate. The boys, of course, do, and they can’t lie. Elder Johanssen tells them to stop it and that’s that … until the next month.

I was Catholic instead of Mormon, and I played junior high basketball (best game ever: 6th grade, vs. Lansing Christian, when I poured in 14 points), so this kid at the front of the story, Karl, is like me. Oh, and then there’s the masturbation thing, which is, uh, pretty right-on, too. Only with me, I got to go into the confessional, where it was dark, and say things like “I had unclean thoughts.” And even though those priests knew probably knew who I was—I was an altar boy, and I altar boyed all the time—I never had to look this old virgin guy in the eye and tell him I’d been jacking it three to five times a day. Karl and his friends not only have to tell their bishop and basketball coach that they defiled themselves in this way, but they have to deal with him trying to manage it all, giving them tips on how to stop, going so far as to have them chart their offenses and report back, next month, as a group. That’s after wearing two pairs of underwear and thinking about baseball don’t work.

“Planetarium” had one mystery, and that’s why all this was called “Planetarium.” I had a guess—it involved ceilings (you know what I’m talking about)—and that guess was dead wrong. The end is better than that, perfect, really, as this is a perfect coming-of-age story (that never quite gets that far), one of the best I’ve ever read.

I’d never read any of Walter Kirn’s work before today, though I’d seen a couple of movies based on his novels, Thumbsucker and Up in the Air. I’m glad I finally broke that streak, as Kirn’s a wonderful writer. Can’t wait to get to the rest of this book.