Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Terese Svoboda, "Bomb Jockey"

Terese Svoboda’s “Bomb Jockey” (One Story 130, Dec. 31, 2009) was off to a sensational start, even more appealing than “The Tornado Bandit,” which I singled out for its great opening.

During World War II, in what seems to be the Dakotas (14), two people meet. One, an irreverent young woman entering college age. She is smart and beautiful, the daughter of a wealthy politician. Her name appears to be Margaret (22), but it’s only mentioned once in the story. The second person is Hump, a young man in possession of athletic and attractive looks and the sole support of a crippled mother. Trait number one makes people wonder why he wasn’t drafted; trait number two explains why. His work is to dispose of faulty bombs, called turkeys. Hump is, classwise, no suitable match for Margaret, but a fling keeps adding up until it’s an affair on the verge of marriage. Margaret’s father is by no means happy with this. At the end, Hump has proposed, and Margaret has to decide if she says yes. There is a nasty incident involving a shell that explodes by accident. Limbs and flesh splatter football players and onlookers. That tilts Margaret’s decision away from what she intended to say.

The first section of the story is brilliant. Four pages in which every word matters, and each is comical, significant, or both. It set the tone for a brusque and brave system of punctuation for dialogues with no identifying marks, a choice that boosted the rhythm without producing confusion. Often, the story rambled and prodded like a good scene from a Pynchon novel (more legible, surely), set in the margins and the marginalia of war.

However, the vivacissimo performance of the beginning turned lentissimo toward the end. There were several dull stretches. In fact, each time we left Margaret’s side, and particularly the combination of Hump and her, the story lost force. It continued to flaunt its devices and flex its muscles, but it merely puttered. As the narrative wound on, I was looking at the time, counting pages.

This was my impression: Svoboda’s background research for the story she wanted to tell unearthed all sorts of interesting facts, and she couldn’t help but accommodating them at the expense of what should’ve been the focus of the piece. The One Story interview presents the story’s origins differently: Svoboda was motivated by a real-life environmental disaster, and sought a tale to work as “back story.” The effect is the same, though: the narrative is bloated with facts and is forced to grope its way to the end. No wonder Svoboda said “[h]aving too much information” was the most challenging part of writing the story. If she had simply followed Margaret and Hump, and allowed the background details to leak in, this would have been a fantastic story. As it stands, it shows the author’s craft, tempo, humor, and capable characterizations, but it needs to be debrided.

Two things in closing. First, the interview reveals that the lengthy story (at 32 pages, it’s the second longest One Story piece I’ve read) makes up a fifth of an unpublished novel. Second, the author claims that the ending is supposed to imply what happened to Hump at the end. I don’t agree. It’s too murky to tell by looking only at the story.

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