"Heads Down, Thumbs Up" by Gavin J. Grant: An Appreciation by Jeff VanderMeer
Grant uses hints of folktale, very specific detail, and the clear-eyed but limited viewpoint of a child to ground his story. Without the specific detail in particular, the story would fly away like a badly moored tent in torrential winds. The magic of the story for me lies in these simple moments. For example, "And then I knew what she meant, the other language coming over me like the dirty water spreading across the painting table when I knocked over my paint cup." Or when Grant describes the aftermath of violence: "She had tied a khaki shirt around her calf, and as we walked it slowly turned red, brown, black."
I've read "Heads Down, Thumbs Up" three or four times and I don't feel fully comfortable parsing its meaning. In a sense, it's the kind of story where the meaning exists in the reading of each sentence. We're not really traveling toward a destination—instead, we are leaving and arriving within each paragraph or set of paragraphs. This gives the story its power and adds a sense of reader confusion at the same time. We pass over the shifting boundaries with the narrator. We lose our confidence in our own telling of the story because of this shifting, then regain it, then lose it. We want the story to be a rigid beast, something that sits still and lets us parse it. But the genius of "Heads Down, Thumbs Up" is that it rejects this kind of reading.
Link to story.