August 30: “The Son’s Point of View” by Brock Clarke

It’s Taco Tuesday, Story366! That’s not really a holiday, or something that I’ve ever acknowledged before. The only reason I’m even thinking it tonight is because I just got talked into Taco Bell by my boys, who do talk about Taco Tuesday a lot, especially the older one, who has a snazzy little comeback that goes Yeah, but not as bad as your butt on Taco Tuesday! or something similar. We were out doing errands after school today, one of them started on in that Taco Tuesday business, and before I knew it, we were in line at the Taco around the corner from my house. So, Story366 readers, welcome to our very first Taco Tuesday!

Tacos eaten and digesting, I read a couple of stories from Brock Clarke’s collection Carrying the Torch, out from University of Nebraska Press as a winner of one of their Prairie Schooner Book Prizes in Fiction. This summer, I wrote about Edith Pearlman, who won four—4!—short story collection contests in three years, four contests that I entered (and, QED, did not win), her books all pretty awesome. Around the same time, Clarke was doing the same thing, winning this Prairie Schooner Prize, right after he won a Mary McCarthy Prize, and I was thinking he was the one who was hogging (i.e., earning) all these prizes, leaving the rest of us the gristle. Then I started meeting Clarke at AWP every year, talking to him, and one time I mentioned this to him in jest, and as my mind tells the story now, he cracked a bit of a smile and shrugged, almost as if he was the Fonz in the mirror, ready to comb his hair, realizing it was already perfect. What I’m saying is, Brock Clarke was the Fonz of short story collection contests (before Edith Pearlman came along and was the Mr. Fucking T of short story collection contests).

As I said, I read a couple of stories from Carrying the Torch, and had I pulled Clarke’s collection from the shelf a couple of weeks ago, I almost certainly would have written about the title story, “Carrying the Torch,” about a woman, living in Atlanta during the ’96 Games, who has a fantasy about cutting off her philandering husband’s penis and running down the street with it like the Olympic torch. Great story, really funny, made me think about my penis a lot. Today, though, in full swing with the semester, I’m more on the lookout for stories that I can use in class. After reading the penis torch story, I scanned the table of contents, saw “The Son’s Point of View,” which just screams creative writing craft, and started reading. I was not disappointed, as this is as great of a teaching story as it is a regular short story. Here we go.

“The Son’s Point of View” is about this dad, who from some distant, future vantage point, tells the story about what’s probably the worst day his family ever had. Not only does he tell the story, all these years later, but he needs to remove himself from it, so he tries to tell it from his older son’s perspective (hence the title). Maybe, you might say, he’s trying to understand his son’s memories, trying to empathize, but really, I think that’s a failed exercise. He’s telling the story with him as a peripheral character because (we soon find out) he can’t deal with himself as the protagonist. Didn’t I tell you this was a great teaching story? That’s like a third of my intro class’s vocab list right there.

Does any of this sound familiar, loyal Story366 reader? Just a few days ago, I reviewed Russell Banks’ “Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story,” a story that’s about someone removing himself from a touchy story. Clarke’s story could be the son of that story, so two in a three days with the same unreliable, cowardly vantage points. Weird.

Anyway, the bad day goes down like this: The family is made up of a mom, a dad, an older brother (the titular kid, Matty, the one whose POV is used), and a younger kid (the Baby, he’s called), who’s gone missing. The dad (narrator) is outside smoking, the mom is doing work around the house, and Matty is supposed to be keeping an eye on his brother. The only thing is, Matty is kind of a spacy kid, a kid who lives inside his own head, a kid who is spending his day in the kitchen, lying on the cool linoleum, making an X out of his body, which seems like a good way to spend some time (in fact, my childhood kitchen had linoleum and on hot days, I’d do this … all the time …). Before long, the mom realizes that Baby is missing, which sends her into a panic. The dad is sort of helping, but also looking for money to go get a new pack of smokes. Matty, though, is not at all concerned, still playing X on the cool floor. When his mom questions him about his brother’s whereabouts, he replies coldly that his little brother might be dead, something he relays coldly, matter of factly, as a sociopath would. This just adds to the hysterics as the mom freaks out further and the dad just about smacks Matty for saying something so callous.

The search for Baby goes on, is eventually resolved, and even though Clarke reveals this information fairly early in the story (earlier than you’d think, as that revelation is not the story’s climax), I’ll still not reveal it here, leaving that tension for your reading. The missing little brother is really only a frame in which Clarke tells his real story, which is the dad telling the story, from Matty’s point of view. Everything I wrote in that last paragraph, keep in mind, might not be what happened, but for sure is what the dad, years later, is claiming to have happened. It’s a very metafictional telling, but is still an untruthful manipulated telling. Still, even in Matty’s perspective, the dad can’t hide the fact that he was being negligent, even after Baby’s gone missing, and can’t hide the fact that he almost hit his other son in the heat of the moment (which is, of course, debatable, too, what he is and isn’t admitting to here). Nothing in the story can be taken at face value, not even the twice-a-year conversations the current narrator has with fully grown Matty, conversations that don’t go well, discontent that’s seemingly rooted to this day when Baby went missing.

“The Son’s Point of View” sports a really interesting perspective, this pathetic narrator-dad, a guy needing to tell a story, work through some demons, still unable to bring himself to be honest. It’s a great angle for Brock Clarke to capture, a much better point to write from than the straight-up missing child story; I’m sure Clarke could have made a story of that, too, but this telling’s special, is the story that Clarke wanted us to hear. I’ve always enjoyed his work and the pieces in Carrying the Torch add to that perception.