June 14: “Sea Bass” by Luke Mogelson

Hello there, Story366! Today’s post comes to us from Luke Mogelson and his new collection, The Heroic, Happy Dead, out from Tim Dutton Books (a division of Penguin Random House) this past April. I came across Mogelson’s work when I was searching through new releases at Penguin, where I found the Tim Dutton imprint and this book. I hadn’t read anything by Mogelson before, so I asked for a copy, and the nice publicity folks mailed me one right away. I got it in the mail today, and since I was at my office and had some reading time, I decided to make The Heroic, Happy Dead today’s feature.

Reading from this collection, I gathered that Mogelson was a veteran, as both stories involved troubled ex-soldiers, military guys who seemed to have trouble adjusting. As it turns out, Mogelson was in the National Guard, a medic, but wasn’t deployed. He did, however, spend three years in Afghanistan as a reporter. Most of his credits and writings I found online were actually journalism, perhaps longer articles that crossed into creative nonfiction, more than just daily reporting (though it seems like he did his share of that as well)—he seems like a features guy. This made me consider my own reading, how I never read this type of writing, never have. I read the news in newspapers and online, I listen to NPR, and of course, I read a boatload of fiction. I don’t, however, ever read nonfiction, including the type of investigative piece that Mogelson seems to have specialized in. Am I missing out? I realize this is a good way to find out information, more in-depth than half-page articles or three-minute broadcast stories, but because my time for reading is always limited, I’ve long prided myself on saying, “I just read fiction.” Most of the reading world disagrees, as nonfiction books sell a lot of copies, seem to feel like they’re “important” in a way that fiction isn’t. I’ve always been pissed off by this. I have distaste for Book TV in particular for focusing on nonfiction every weekend, forty-eight hours of nonfiction book talk. They couldn’t spare an hour once a week, say at 3-4 every Sunday morning, to feature a major fiction author doing a reading or an interview, maybe even both? Nope. Doing background info on Mogelson, it seems like he’s written a lot of important stuff on the wars in the Middle East, on soldiers back home, the kind of thing maybe I don’t get enough info on. I should rethink this.

Still, Mogelson’s fiction, like all historically relevant fiction, does a pretty good job of depicting what it depicts, of telling a true story, albeit by fictional means. I read the first few stories in These Heroic, Happy Dead, the first two taking place Stateside, both after and before these Middle Eastern wars, while the third actually takes place during operations overseas; thumbing through more stories, it seems like the majority of them take place in that setting as opposed to here. Mogelson seems to cover a lot of angles in this book, not unlike Phil Klay’s Redeployment, which I covered here at Story366 a couple of months ago. What’s different about Mogelson’s book, however, is that characters recur, maybe not enough to call this book “intercollected,” but a few of the characters show up more than once, at the very least.

The story I’m focusing on today is “Sea Bass,” the second story in the book, one of the ones set Stateside. This one is set in 2001, right before 9-11, and is told from the perspective of an eleven-year-old kid, Kyle, whose dad is a veteran (though not all of this comes up until the end of the story). Anyway, the story starts with Kyle’s dad, Jim, stopping by to pick some things up, as he’s been kicked out of the house by Kyle’s mom, Linda; in fact, a guy named Hank has already moved in. We don’t know why Jim is being kicked out, but we find out he’s kind of a con man, as he convinces Kyle to let him in to use the bathroom, a ruse that Jim enacts so he can steal the family dog (only to mistreat it later). This is who Jim is, and it’s a well wrought scene.

Cut a bit forward and Kyle has to spend a summer with Jim, who is living in another state, working at a hardware store, and is more or less a mess. Kyle recognizes this by how Lucy lives (among other things), but as much of a mess and a conman as he is, Jim wants to do right by Kyle, make an impression. When it’s revealed that Lucy lives most of her day in a tiny cage, Jim sets out on enclosing his yard with a fence, a fence the two of them are going to build on Jim’s weekend off.

This all happens pretty early in the story, but by this point, we already know that Jim’s probably not going to pull this off. This a skill that Mogelson has, entrenching us in a story early, offering us complicated but clear characters that we get to know right away. My suspicions are confirmed when Jim and Kyle get to the hardware store where Jim works to cut some posts, only to find that Jim has already “borrowed” half the store’s tools and his boss, George, pretty much wants to fire him—Kyle’s presence is probably the only thing that keeps that from happening, George not having the will to fire a guy in front of his kid. Mogelson’s stories seems to be filled with confrontations like this, people dealing with other people (who don’t particularly like them), face to face. It’s something I try to instill in my classes, the type of rough, uncomfortable confrontation at which Mogelson thrives.

Getting fired probably would have been better for Jim because what happens next is much worse. Travis, the guy who ratted out Jim on the missing tools, is out in the lumber yard and while Jim puts in his post order, Travis reminds him, over and over, that kids aren’t allowed in the yard. Too many sharps things, too many heavy things, too many ways for a kid to get hurt and for George to lose his business. It seems like this is going somewhere—and in a good story it should—and sure enough, having a kid in the yard turns on Jim, but even more so on Kyle. I’ll not reveal what happens, but when guys like Jim are put in charge of kids, it seems that eventually, bad shit is going to happen.

“Sea Bass” seems like it would climax there, but really, it doesn’t. There’s another pretty big scene after that involving Lucy, but also an epilogue of sorts, one where Kyle gets meta, telling us that all, narrator-style, that all this had taken place in 2001, right before 9-11, which led to Jim re-enlisting. What Kyle tells us next (including where the title comes from) is my favorite part of the story, but again, you’ll have to read it to find out how Mogelson ends his tale.

I really like “Sea Bass,” a story told in first person past tense, a kid recollecting his time with his wayward father. If you’ve been a consistent Story366 reader, you know that father-son stories hit me particularly hard, so that’s likely why I chose to write about “Sea Bass” over the fantastic “To the Lake” and the Afghani-set “New Guidance.” Mogelson is a helluva writer and his debut fiction collection, These Heroic, Happy Dead is a helluva book. Glad I came across it, gonna read more.