Hello, Story366! If you’ve been around the blog of late, you know that this has officially turned into a Cubs blog as well as a daily short story blog, as the playoffs have begun and the Cubs are still alive. Yesterday, I chose to write my essay before the game, posting about forty minutes before first pitch, leaving me to suffer with my nerves for the entirety. And if you know anything about what’s happened, you know the Cubs pulled off an unlikely victory last night, scoring four runs in the top of the ninth to go ahead 6-5; their closer held on in the bottom of that frame, striking out the side, sealing the incredible comeback win. In fact, it’s the largest ninth-inning comeback in elimination games in MLB history. As you might imagine, I was pretty stoked. I don’t think I fell asleep until 3, and that was after going to bed at 1:30. I felt like a kid, I felt so good. What a feeling.
Oddly, yesterday’s post, about Robert Thomas‘ book Bridge, was also ironic in that Thomas lives in Oakland and works in San Francisco and is a Giants fan. He’s been watching, too, he let me know via Facebook, so without trying to, I randomly picked a book by a Giants fan. Had I known, maybe we could have done a … okay, I don’t even know how to finish that sentence, as I have no idea what we would have done. Plus, I don’t know Thomas and never exchanged words with him until I tagged him in the FB post yesterday. Still, a bit of serendipity, me writing about watching the Cubs-Giants, a Cubs fan writing about a Giants fan. Sometimes, things work out like that.
Today, I’m writing about Ann Pancake‘s latest collection, Me and My Daddy Listen to Bob Marley, out from Counterpoint Press. As far as I know, Pancake has zero ties to the Cubs or the Giants, but is strongly associated with a place, West Virginia, where just about all (if not all) of her work is set. I have a bit of a tie to the Mountaineer State, as Karen‘s dad is from there and have a couple of degrees from WVU. She grew up across the Ohio River from Point Pleasant, too, where the Mothman legend originates. I also got to publish a story of Pancake’s in Mid-American Review and have seen her read a couple of times. I read a few stories from this new book today, and after some deliberation—they’re all great stories—I’m going to write about the title piece.
“Me and My Daddy Listen to Bob Marley” is about Mish, this three-year-old kid who comes from a broken home. On the weekends, he’s with his daddy, Steve (but called “Daddy” by the close third-person narrator throughout), a recovering meth addict who tries his best, which, sadly, isn’t much. The story starts with Mish (short for Matthew Steven Halliday, Jr., by the way) at Daddy’s parents’ house, Daddy sneaking into his father’s (Pappy’s) bedroom to steal money from Pappy’s wallet while he sleeps. Mish watches the whole thing go down, his father putting his Shhh! finger up to his mouth. This is as good a way to start the story as any, as it’s so emblematic of who Daddy is, what Mish has to endure, his environment. So, Pancake sets the tone early with this cool scene.
By the way, to get into reading “Me and My Daddy Listen to Bob Marley,” you first have to pick up on what Pancake’s doing with voice and perspective. I noted above that Pancake uses a close third person, but we get a lot of dialect thrown in, some of it West Virginia, but some of it from Mish, who’s three and has some speech problems—we get bits of his dialogue and he clearly has trouble with some letters, especially the L, e.g., Wet me wissen, Cawwon when he’s trying to say, Let me listen, Carlin to his older half-brother, trying to share an iPod (which Carlin got from his dad for Christmas when Mish didn’t get anything). On top of that, there’s a lot of references to Mish’s “men,” and it’s a few pages before I figured out that this is in reference to Carlin’s action figures, which he carries with him everywhere, which help him live out elaborate fantasies. All in all, the story sounds really good, Pancake putting us inside this little boy’s head, and I can’t express here how impressed I am—this kind of voice is not easy to do.
Mish is three, keep in mind, so he just wants to go with the flow. He wants to listen to Carlin’s iPod (Mish is with his mom in the middle hunk of the story). He wants attention. He wants to be comfortable, with his mom, his dad, the people who love him. Most of all, he wants the comfort of his things, his men, a Power Ranger and the Hulk and Dash Incredible, to name a few, to know where they are, in his pockets, in his room at his dad’s apartment, where he left them. He wants his Dallas Cowboys parka, too, which engulfs him like a womb, keeps him safe. If all that’s good, Mish is an agreeable, pleasant kid. If any of those things go awry—and because this is a short story, they do—Mish is not a happy kid.
And that’s Mish, star of the main story, of which I’ll reveal nothing further. “Me and My Daddy Listen to Bob Marley” is also about Daddy, Steve (heck, he’s in the title), this guy who’s trying to do good by his son, trying to bounce back from some fucking up. We get all the details of Steve’s life via observations made by Mish, including some conversations that Mish overhears, through heating vents. He doesn’t understand when Steve’s brother and mom discuss his addictions or the charges the mom and Pappy had to file against him; we, the adult readers, do. Mish is three and introverted and has a speech development problem, but he’s got his whole life ahead of him. This background story about his dad is just as interesting to me because in a way, it’s even more tragic. How clever of Pancake to tell this story, these two stories, in this way.
I’ve loved everything that I’ve read by Ann Pancake and this piece, and other stories in Me and My Daddy Listen to Bob Marley, is no different. Pancake has a gift for dialect and a keen sense of her home state, but these stories are more than just West Virginia stories, they’re powerful, well wrought tales that happen to take place in West Virginia, the setting enhancing the details without overwhelming them. Pancake’s got the goods. You should check her out.