Dispatches | May 15, 2013

During the month of May, The Missouri Review will highlight a single short story to help celebrate National Short Story Month. We’ve asked a diverse group of readers and writers to participate by sharing a short story that demands to be read. Today’s blog post comes from managing editor Michael Nye.

One of the phrases I love to use is “serious play.” If you’ve ever watched children become completely absorbed in their world of Legos, or GI Joe, or Rainbow Brite, or whatever it might be, you’ve seen the way their imaginary world becomes real and vivid, and that the rules of this world, if you ask them, are quite serious. Kids don’t screw around with their imaginary games. I’ve used this phrase, “serious play”, when talking to my students at the Missouri Review or in the fiction writing I teach as a way of approaching our work. Have a blast with it, laugh as much as you can, but always remember that we do here matters, matters a tremendous amount.

I’m pretty sure this is one of the few things I did not get from Lee Abbott when I was in his undergraduate writing workshop at Ohio State. He seemed to know, and tell, and demand of us, a great range of things about the fine art of storytelling. What struck me then, and now, is that no workshop teacher ever talked as much as Lee did. If he’s reading this, I do say this to needle him a bit; nonetheless, it’s also true. Lee didn’t suffer fools in his classroom; waste time with a subject that has been talked to death, he’s going to move it along. He actually used the chalkboard! And he also did this with a bit of a smirk on his face, the kind of professor that would put an arm around your shoulder and go through, line by line, a Miller Williams poem with you until you damn well got it.

Being an undergraduate, of course, I had to go out and read his work immediately and figure out who the hell this guy was. This was before Amazon and Google and the Interwebs. I walked over to the campus bookstore and got the latest story collection by Lee, something called Living After Midnight and, thought, okay, let’s see if you can walk the walk.

All the stores in the collection were absolutely stunning. I’d heard of minimalism. But this was “maximalist” writing. This was Pistol Pete Maravich leading a fastbreak, Baryshnikov in his prime, William Jennings Bryan giving a speech before hundreds of thousands. And the story I kept returning to, over and over again, was “Freedom, A Theory Of.” Here’s the opening line:

The story my father told—before he abandoned my mother and me, before he reappeared years and years later to beat the stuffings out of me—concerned his sister Shirley who, at seven years old in 1927, burst out of the ladies’ room on the third level of the old steamship Seeandbee, a five-hundred-foot, all-steel sidewheeler from the Cleveland & Buffalo Transit Company, went through the railing (“Stumbled,” my father insisted), and pitched overboard.

I’m already dizzy and delighted by the end of that paragraph. And the prose style never lets up. Not for one second.

Our protagonist Carter acknowledges that, yes, he becomes as obsessed with his father’s disappearance as his old man was obsessed about his sister’s death. He continues to expect his father to show up over the years, and is always disappointed. Until the day he is golfing with his childhood best friend, Jeep Freeman. At this point, Carter is married, the father of twin girls, vacations several times a year, knows the stock market and good food, capable of identifying classical composers, and in most ways, is as satisfied and fulfilled as a middle-aged man of means can be. “Plus,” Carter adds, “that day I was blasting the ball like Jack Nicklaus.”

And, then, finally, his father reappears, and proposes a settling of old scores.

You can read the entire story here, for free, on The Gettysburg Review‘s website.

Lee K. Abbott is the author of seven collections of short stories and is a professor emeritus of English at the Ohio State University. The winner of two O. Henry awards and three Pushcart Prizes, his fiction appeared in The Atlantic, Georgia Review, Harper’s, Kenyon Review, and Ploughshares, among many others. His most recent collection All Things, All at Once: New and Selected Stories was released on W.W. Norton in 2006.