August 14: “The Agriculture Hall of Fame” by Andrew Malan Milward

Greetings, Story366! It’s Sunday and also the last day of my last trip to Chicago for the summer. In the morning, I’ll be heading back toward Missouri, where my kids will start school and I’ll have meetings to attend, syllabi to finalize, last-minute projects to fit in lest I regret not using the summer to complete them. For us academic/student-types, this feels more like the end of the year than December 31, and this coming week, I’m sure I’ll talk a lot about this weird time of the year, the last week of summer before classes begin.

As it’s a hectic day, filled with obligations of all sorts, I’ll get right into today’s story, “The Agriculture Hall of Fame” by Andrew Malan Milward, from his collection of the same title, The Agriculture Hall of Fame, winner of a Juniper Prize for Fiction and released by the University of Massachusetts Press. I read a few stories from Milward’s book, admiring them all, some long, some short, but as I so often do, I am going to write about that title piece.

“The Agriculture Hall of Fame” is about Meg, as well as Jerry, two characters who come together through circumstance to become lovers, though Jerry prefers to keep it casual, breezing by Meg’s farm randomly, every few months or so, sometimes longer. Meg inherited the farm from her mother and has some cows and horses, while Jerry is a wandering soul, working as an industrial photographer, which seems to be a guy who takes pictures of landscapes while hanging from a helicopter, pictures of large hunks of and that his company is looking to buy. Meg and Jerry meet, spend a night together, and every so often, he passes through town to spend another night; Jerry might like Meg more than some of the other women with whom he has this relationship—there have been quite a few—as he lists Meg as his emergency contact, a fact that comes to play early in the story.

And when I say “early in the story,” I’m segueing into a structural fact I need to reveal: The story is told, more or less, backwards, not unlike Christopher Nolan’s film Memento. The most recent events happen first, and then back to the origin of Meg and Jerry we go, Milward using this structure and time set-up to bring us the highest drama early—Jerry, at the outset, is diagnosed with early-stage Alzheimer’s—and then we spend the rest of the story discovering how he, along with emergency contact Meg, got to that point. The story is even numbered, starting at twenty-five and working backwards (thought Milward skips a few random numbers), the whole approach mimicking a memory exercise that Jerry is prescribed, a way to keep his mind sharp, to delay the inevitable. I was confused for the first page or two as I was reading, but once I figured out what Milward was doing, and why, I really eased into the structure. It’s a neat trick, making this a story I’ll share with my classes, just so they can see how a writer can alter the Freitag arc and still write a wonderful, cohesive, and intense story.

This all makes this particular Story366 post odd as well, as I just revealed the end of the story, as in the literal story, how Meg and Jerry end up, at least the most recent point Milward has created for them. Knowing the most climactic and intimate details of his protagonists—they’re part-time lovers, he has Alzheimer’s, she’s secretly his contact person—and knowing them first makes all the details that follow more like pieces of a shattered puzzle, clues to a mystery. Meg has a long side story where she has to help her horse give birth, something that’s tricky and often leads to one or both of the parties dying (and contributes to the story’s epigraph). The origin of Jerry’s illness is revealed, too. Eventually, we make it to the origin point (reminiscent, a bit, in reverse fashion, of the V-shaped story by J. California Cooper that I discussed yesterday), where Milward springs a pretty big twist on us, one—along with this expertly devised and executed structure—that makes “The Agriculture Hall of Fame”a tremendous short story.

I’m happy to have discovered Andrew Malan Milward’s collection and story. As noted, this is one I’ll share with students when we talk about structure, about alternative structure, sort of like the Courtney Eldridge story I wrote about just nine days into this project. I liked all of Milward’s stories, though, even the ones that start at the beginning.

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