December 18: “Larabi’s Ox” by Tony Ardizzone

Hello there, Story366! Today is Sunday, marking the final day of this third Bowling Green Creative Writing Program Alumni Week. That’s twenty-one entries from Falcon alum right there, plus several more that I did outside these designated weeks. Since I’ve gone all-in on being a homer, I might as well index those entries there, as today’s intro, just to fully exploit my alma mater in this project. So, here goes:

Balaskovits, A.A. December 13: “The Ibex Girl of Qumran”
Brazaitis, Mark. December 14: “An American Affair”
Daniels, Jim Ray. December 12: “13-Part Story With Mime”
de Jesus, Noelle Q. November 9: “Cold”
Doerr, Anthony. Febuary 21: “Village 113”
Fearnside, Jeff. December 16: “The Cat People”
Fraterrigo, Melissa. November 13: “The Longest Pregnancy”
Gustine, Amy. February 25: “You Should Pity Us Instead”
Hoffman, Dustin M. November 10: “One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist”
Howard, Joanna. November 11: “In Duffy’s Plum Cricket”
Keaton, David James. February 23: “Schrödinger’s Rat”
Klimasewiski, Marshall N. November 12: “Tyrants”
Mayo, Wendell. February 26: “The Cucumber King of Kedainiai”
McFawn, Monica. February 22: “Line of Questioning”
Meacham, Rebecca. November 7: “The Assignment”
Mellas, Tessa. January 11: “Beanstalk”
Panning, Anne. February 27: “Super America”
Ryan, Patrick. November 8: “The Dream Life of Astronauts”
Thompson, Jean. January 3: “The Witch”
Valente, Anne. February 24: “By Light We Knew Our Names”

Several collections/authors were ineligible by my own rules for this project, as I’d read them before, all by friends of mine, including Lives of Mapmakers by Alicia ConroyThe Great Frustration by Seth FriedVolt by Alan Heathcock, and How to Fly by Rachel Perry. Add Tony Ardizzone today, plus two more I have planned before the end of the year, and that’s a pretty good sampling of the story collections published by BG authors. I didn’t get to a couple of older books, Eminent Domain by Dan O’Brien and Old Morals, Small Continents, and Darker Times by Philip F. O’Connor, books I’ll try to get to next year. Some of the authors above, like Tony Ardizzone, Mark Brazaitis, Tony Doerr, Anne Panning, and Jean Thompson, have multiple collections, too. Am I missing any? As you can see, I’m trying to get to them all, sooner or later.

Speaking of Tony Ardizzone, let’s get to Laribi’s Ox: Stories of Morocco, which is out from Milkweed Editions as the winner of their National Fiction Prize. Tony is one of the earlier grads of the program on this list, but followed a similar path to the writing world that I did. He’s from Chicago, attended the University of Illinois for undergrad, then Bowling Green for his MFA (the same path Jean Thompson took around the same time). After, Tony got a job at Indiana University and has been there since, and I’ve had the privilege of meeting him a couple of times at AWP. Nice guy. He’s the author of a lot of books besides Larabi’s Ox, but since this is the collection I have and I haven’t read it before today, here we go.

According to the back cover, Larabi’s Ox is made up of interconnected stories featuring three Americans traveling abroad or living in Moracco. As luck would have it—and before I knew about that—I read three stories, each one featuring one of the main characters (had I not read the back cover description, I would have never known these characters reoccurred, or maybe even meet up in other stories). I could have written about any of the stories, but I’ll go with the title story, as I’m prone to do.

“Larabi’s Ox” is a story that utilizes multiple points of view to chronicle a specific incident, a bus traveling between Casablanca and Rabat that runs into and kills an ox, Larabi’s ox. The bus is a tourist bus, and the first perspective we get on the incident is the driver’s, the first person who knows and realizes what’s happened. The ox climbed out of a ditch and walked right in front of his bus, leaving him no chance to avoid it. To him, the collision with this ox is a practical concern. He is worried about the damage the ox has done and how he’s going to move this dying/dead ox off the road so he can move on. Will he be fired for the damage done to the bus on his shift? He thinks so. He spends a lot of time considering what he’ll tell his superiors back at the garage, how he’ll spin this, which is probably what any driver, in any part of the country, would do in the same situation.

Without any extra space breaks or headers or any other kinds of markings, the POV shifts to one of the bus passengers, an American tourist named Henry Goodson, one of the three main characters of the collection. Henry’s perspective just picks up without transition, in a new paragraph, we readers suddenly in his head instead of the driver’s. It took me a second to figure out what was going on, but once I did, I liked it as a technique, this sudden shift, as this kind of incident seems to call for this kind of omniscience, be it in the traditional sense or as it is here, one at a time.

Henry is a shudder bug, snapping all kinds of pictures (probably not what the driver wants, evidence to disprove whatever tale he’ll concoct). He is ultra-aware of being the only American on the bus, not that it bothers him, but he seems hypersensitive to his surroundings, his situation, more than he is this dead ox that’s blocking his bus to Rabat.

From there we go to a small boy who is on the side of the road, a boy who is transporting milk to the market in a wheelbarrow, a boy who has very specific concerns and a very active imagination. We then go to the boy’s uncle, who is watching from a distance, who has his own set of problems.

Eventually, Ardizzone brings his outlooks together, as there’s still the problem of this ox that’s blocking the road (which has got to be a metaphor for something). Ironically, we don’t ever get Larabi’s point of view, just that it’s his ox and he’s not going to be happy, of course, to find it dead on the side of the road (Ardizzone includes quite a bit of dead-on, stark description of this dead animal, by the way, it’s almost lovely). This story, as well as the others I read, provide a gateway into this foreign land, told mostly from the perspective of those visiting, for several reasons. The stories I read are early in the book, but again, that back cover revealed a lot about what motivated each of the three to travel to the north African nation, what they were hoping to find, what they end up finding.

I really enjoyed reading from Larabi’s Ox today, a book that does what a book like this—one about Americans and set in a foreign land—sets out to do: Take me to that exotic place and show me how people like me, people who aren’t from there, experience it. The fact that Tony Ardizzone uses three different characters gives us three times the experience, a unique way to approach a project like this. More acutely, though, the stories are just well written, each character an original person, Ardizzone’s skill in employing them, in the right place, in the right way, apparent. I’m eager now to read more of his books—this is the only one set in Morocco, I assume—to see what else he does.