The ED SF Project

The Ellen Datlow/SCI FICTION Project, that is. We're showing the love for five and a half years of great short fiction, and we need your help! We've got over 300 stories to cover, so if you're a person who loves short speculative fiction, we want you. Go here to read the list and add your voice.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

"You Go Where It Takes You" by Nathan Ballingrud: An Appreciation by Lucius Shepard

"He did not look like a man who would change her life. He was big, roped with muscles from working on offshore oil rigs, and tending to fat. His face was broad and inoffensively ugly, as though he had spent a lifetime taking blows and delivering them. He wore a brown raincoat against the light morning drizzle and against the threat of something more powerful held in abeyance. He breathed heavily, moved slowly, found a booth by the window overlooking the water, and collapsed into it. He picked up a syrup-smeared menu and studied it with his whole attention, like a student deciphering Middle English. He was like every man who ever walked into that little diner. He did not look like a beginning or an end."

This, the opening of "You Go Where It Takes You," is handled with such deft economy and elegance, it's easy to go right past it and not notice everything it achieves. Which is how things should be. You read a story, you don't analyze it. Nevertheless, for anyone interested in writing, the mechanics and structure of this superb paragraph merit some brief analysis.

As with many great openings, it is a story unto itself and has a circularity that mimicks and presages the circle drawn by the larger story. It is packed with information. It tells us who this man and woman are by describing the woman's observance of the man and her estimation of his worth in her eyes. We know at once that these are working people, people who have risen or sunk to, or were born into the working class; they have both been worn down by their experience of the world. We know the woman has a jaundiced view of men--the negative, distant manner with which she sums him up tells us that. They don't expect much of one another, yet we have the idea that their lack of expectation will lead to trouble, because they're the kind of people for whom trouble is an inevitablity, a break in the monotony, no more to be feared than the passage of another empty day.

The prose reads easily and we don't register that we know these things, but the knowledge is there, embedded in the words, released from them by the passage of our eyes across the page. It's there in the noirish tone and the sentences used to generate it. All the sentences but one begin with the word, "He"; the single anomalous sentence begins with "His." This gives unusual weight to the subjective pronouns and lends the sentences a rhythm and a punch they might not have without that repetition. It's as if the reader is being cautioned, as if the author, beneath the surface of the words, is warning through the medium of the stressed pronouns that, "You better beware. You better hang on, because this isn't going to be a smooth ride. You might just hear something you won't like, and learn something you don't want to." The sentences, their aggressive rhythms, have the effect of probing blows, like the jabs a fighter uses to set up his right hand. Indeed, the whole story is a big; it turns on an actual blow. And you, the reader, are being set up for the ending, which will--like a shot to the bundle of nerves in the solar plexus--leave you sagging and helpless, painfully aware.

Wonderfully observed, concisely narrated, the story tells of Toni, a single mom, a waitress, and Alex, an ex-oil rig worker, now a drifter, who come together in a small Gulf Coast town in Louisiana. They meet, they become casual lovers, and then Alex shows Toni something that smacks of insanity, something to do with masks, with identity. Witnessing it sets a lit match to Toni's own desperation and craziness, and drives her to an almost unthinkable act. Beneath the honest, authentic, straightforward craft of the story's surface lies a scrambled circuitry of derangement and indifference . . . the fundamental indifference that permits us to live while around us, whether close at hand or far away, horrible crimes are perpetrated and terrible sins are being committed. Alex's crime, which seems at first to be implausible, an element in a horror movie, is given plausibility by the real horror and utter human-ness of Toni's sin, her indifference. The story ends abruptly. Too abruptly, you think. It's like listening to jukebox that gets accidentally unplugged before the song ends. There should be a fade, a crescendo, something. But then, as you think more about it--and you will continue to think about it--you realize that nothing meaningful can happen to Alex and Toni past the moment the story ends, and the ending, jagged, truncated, is dead-on perfect.

Nathan Ballingrud worked as a bartender in New Orleans, a platform that's a great vantage from which to view desperation and derangement, and he has used his experience to good end. I don't know how long it took him to write the story or, for that matter, the opening, Sometimes these things come as gifts to a writer and seem to flow from the brain fully formed; sometimes what appears effortless is the product of a month's grinding. Whichever, it was well worth the trouble. Reading "You Go Where It Takes You" reminded me of something I had lost track of in my own writing, and I'm grateful for that. But more pertinently, it's tremendous story and I'm priviledged to celebrate Nathan and his work. That he has written such an impressive piece so early in his career announces the arrival of a significant talent.

Link to story.


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