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Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Out of the Wreckage

A woman rushes to the aid of her father-in-law, who's had a car accident ("again"). Though "Pop," as he's called, made it home on his own, the next morning his son and the narrator insist that he go to the emergency room for X-rays, where he is pronounced sound and discharged.

Though that pointed "again" in the first sentence more than suggests that Pop’s wrecking of cars is routine, no elaboration is offered here, and so the event feels novel and therefore anecdotal. For the same reason that anecdotes make for great entertainment among friends, they tend not to work very well as fiction (or—in this case—as memoir), since they present people in such strained and extraordinary circumstances that they fail to illuminate their personalities. In other words what Tolstoy said about happy families ("All happy families are happy in the same way") applies equally to men who've just missed breaking their necks in car accidents.

What would make this scene less anecdotal is more background surrounding the father’s habit of wrecking cars, so that this scene is experienced in its proper context: as one (perhaps the worst) in a series of similar incidents. Instead of concentrating on the aftermath, as here, the author would do better to describe Pop’s routine actions which have occasioned this particular event. Otherwise what do I learn about Pop? Merely that like the rest of us he is flesh and blood and hence mortal, and that for a self-destructive man he is also very, very lucky. But his luck is more a factor of fate than of character: it, too, tells us little about who he is.

Bottom line: the author misses the point of her own opening scene. The point isn’t that her father survives this event, or how; the point is that he has survived dozens (or however many) like it—that he's a reckless man whose recklessness causes more pain and suffering to his kin than to himself.

As written this isn't emphasized; in fact it’s brushed aside in favor of the details surrounding this particular episode, the trip to the emergency room, and so on, all of which is if not entirely predictable pro forma. It is the footnote or epilogue to a tale as yet unwritten of a man with a death wish, or something approaching one. Perhaps the scene more-or-less as written might serve as a framing device, a way to get into the story of this father and his reckless behavior. In that case, the story might be framed at one end with the trip to the emergency room, and then—after Pop’s history of car wrecks has been recounted and its implications explored—with Pop's having survived, for better or worse, yet again.

Some technical issues: as written the opening suffers from temporal dislocation. When has the incident occurred? The exclamatory first sentence suggests that it has just happened, while the past tense second paragraph suggests otherwise, that the episode is being recalled not hours later, but across a much greater distance of time. Better to write: "At six o'clock this morning Pop wrecked his car. Again." Else why would the narrator exclaim over it now?

The last sentence of the third paragraph tells us that Nancy Lee's house treated Pop's sounds.

In the fifth paragraph the phrase "down for the count"—an idiom imported from the boxing ring, when a boxer has been knocked out and won't recover—implies that Pop will die of his hidden wounds, but everything that follows suggests that he will live to wreck more cars.

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