Monday, June 14, 2010

Anne Corbitt, "The Tornado Bandit"

Some of the stories I’ve discussed recently sin at the beginning: they start slowly and pick up the pace, so that compressing or curtailing the opening pages would make the story stronger. The opposite happens with Anne Corbitt’s “The Tornado Bandit” (One Story 129, Dec. 10, 2009). It starts out forcefully, only to turn its march into a meander that circles around for a nap at the end.

It’s a story about a family, the elderly Mitty and Carl Milton, who return home from a trip to find their house trashed and a beaten, grizzled corpse lying in the bathroom. We find out three homes were affected by the killer the newspapers call the Tornado Bandit. The lives of these families are shaken. Leah Finkelstein starts watching violent movies, zoning out, arguing fiercely with butchers, and carrying around a bat. Mitty and Carl take risks: they speed around in fancy cars taken from the lot where Carl works as a salesman, they gamble, they have sex outside in the yard. Carl, uxorious for forty years, acts as tough as he thinks the Tornado Bandit would. The families get an invitation to Oprah, and they haggle over how best to run the talk-show circuit. Then a government agent comes in and offers a hundred grand in exchange for their silence. The Miltons take it, thinking they’ll travel and lead a life of excitement. They seem to settle into the money, prudence advising against the spendthrift travels they had foreseen. At least for now. The final sentence is both quiet and ambiguous.

We are led masterfully into the story. Details are splashed into the action without the need to make detours for description. For instance, notice how cleverly we are let into the tension between the Miltons and their daughter with regard to their moving into a retirement home. Note how distinct personalities are captured so neatly through dialogue and clothes. There is also plenty of humor. When the three families were negotiating who would get what show, someone says that the arrangement won’t “be fair to the person who goes on Montel” (14). There are more funny lines, which on a few occasions escalate to something unpalatable, like this polysyllabic caricature of a singer: “her voice [was] one pack of menthol cigarettes away from a warbling, emphysemic parrot” (15). Surely we can do better than warbling, emphysemic parrot.

The story starts to lose its breath when we are shown several snippets of how the families, and especially the Miltons, were transformed by the Tornado Bandit. Then came the Oprah discussions, which, despite their humor and how revealing they were of the pop culture of crime, led nowhere. Then the government’s offer, and the predictable close when the Miltons returned to their predictable lives. It was a difficult plot to end on a high note, but I was expecting something else, something surprising and compelling, after such a clever setup.

Fix that, and it’s a wonderful story. Still, a few things needed tweaking. There’s a transcribed and italicized thought early on (5) that it would’ve been better to omit. Also, the cops in the story were walking clichés. They speak something like the detectives in those Seinfeld episodes set in L.A. One gives this order: “Rookie. Got a possible GDQ sample here. Bag it” (2). Later on, the government agent puts pressure on the Miltons by saying that he recommends “not disappointing the most powerful government in the world” (18). How many times have we heard that line? The One Story interview helps explain why this happened: Corbitt was inspired to write the story by spy and secret agent movies. She probably drew the officers’ language from these sources, perhaps with some sarcasm, perhaps not.

The piece of writing advice Corbitt shares in the interview comes from Barry Hannah: “The world doesn’t need any more pretty sentences. The world needs a good story.” Something to keep very much in mind. Giving the world what it needed was what gave “The Tornado Bandit” its strength.

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