Son of Mr. Green Jeans: Fatherhood from Allen to Zappa

[an analysis by Skylar Rush]

“Son of Mr. Green Jeans, A Meditation on Fathers” is an essay that—through various, and at times random segments concerning numerous different people or situations—elicits the importance of fathers and fatherhood in general. Moore portrays this importance in a very original way, using short little snippets about anything from bees and carp, to xenogenesis and his own experience as a father. These excerpts can prove humorous at times, and rather somber at others. Either way, they are highly effective in illustrating his main goal. I really enjoyed this essay and the way it (without having any plot whatsoever) effectively demonstrated how the presence of a father, or lack thereof, can alter the course of a person’s life. He even placed a short quiz right in the middle of the piece to expound his main idea and keep the reader’s eyes and thoughts engaged. Moore brilliantly utilized nonlinear structure to make the story come full circle, placing these little modules in alphabetical order and resolving all tension in the last two, “Y-Chromosomes” and “Zappa.”

KITTEN

Kitten, the youngest daughter on Father Knows Best, was played by Lauren Chapin.

LAUREN CHAPIN

Chapin’s father, we later learned, molested her, and her mother was a severe alcoholic. After Father Knows Best ended in 1960, Chapin’s life came apart. At age sixteen, she married an auto mechanic. At age eighteen, she became addicted to heroin and began working as a prostitute.

Moore’s use of nonlinear structure is shown here in his two sections of the piece concerning an actress that played the youngest daughter on a TV show in the fifties about a “perfect American family.” He uses these two modules two show that this TV family was something he wanted for his own life at the time. But outside the frame of the camera shot, Chaplin was a product of her own home environment. In a later snippet entitled “Religion,” Moore returns to Chaplin, describing how she finds Jesus in 1979 and turns her life around. This yet again expounds the importance of a fatherly presence in life through God who is viewed as the heavenly father that guides and protects us in our journey through life.

Dinty Moore uses this unusual fragmented arrangement to provide the reader with a different perspective on the father juxtaposed with his own story of fatherhood. Towards the middle of the piece, he describes a conversation with his wife in which she expresses her desire to have children. He tells her she is crazy, stating, “Convinced that she had just proposed the worst imaginable idea, I stood from my chair, looked straight ahead, and literally marched out of the room.” His attitude was undoubtedly stemming from his own personal experiences with his stuttering, drunk father—fearful that he would put someone else through the nightmare that he endured as a son. Later on in his section entitled “Vasectomies,” he says quite simply, “I had a vasectomy in 1994.” As the reader we understand the tension about Moore having children to be resolved quite abruptly, and to be honest, in a rather unsatisfying manner. But in the second to last passage, “Y-Chromosomes” he discusses that he did in fact have a daughter before his vasectomy and she has inherited only the “Moore family’s better traits” describing himself as lucky. Though lacking of any tangible and continuous thread, Dinty Moore creates a concrete, cathartic story on the importance of the father figure in one’s life. Did I mention that Tim Allen’s real last name is Dick?

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Correctness

[an analysis by Sam Bilheimer]

Jo Ann Beard’s story, “The Fourth State of Matter,” is a terrifying account of the shooting at the University of Iowa in November of 1991. Surrounding the intense passage depicting the moment Gang Lu opens fire on several faculty members, Beard juxtaposes her daily troubles, work experiences, friendships, and her sickly collie.

Magnificently, Beard manages to depict the most unsettling scene that I have ever had the pleasure of reading. When Gang Lu begins his shooting spree, the prose becomes disjointed yet somehow flows much more smoothly than many properly-structured sentences ever have.

The sentences become fragmented: “The third bullet in the right hand, the fourth in the chest.” The sentences go off, structurally and succinctly, like Gang’s bullets. “Smoke,” is its own complete sentence, and so is “Reload.” This systematic and fast prose moves this piece along at just the right pace.

While reading this story, I began to change the sentences around in my head, “correcting” them. It’s probably unnecessary to state this, because it will be clear once you read my “corrections,” but what I did made the sentences so much worse. When grammatically correct, the sentence, “Reload. Two more for Chris, one for Shan. Exit the building, cross two streets, run across the green, into building number two and upstairs,” would become the significantly less poetic, “He reloads and shoots two more at Chris and one at Shan. He exits the building, crosses two streets, runs across the green, and goes upstairs into building number two.” Those extra words kill the prose. Beard’s original syntax is like a camera tracking Gang Lu’s movements perfectly. As he moves from the first building to the next, we move with him. Urgency. Nothing more. Nothing less.

But why is the “correct” way working so poorly? As a newly appointed assistant copy-editor for an independent fiction magazine, this bothered me. Isn’t proper grammar the right way to go forever and always? Perhaps not. “Correctness” must sometimes be thrown to the side when it gets in the way of the readability and artful essence of a piece. If Beard had a stricter editor who was less than pleased with the frequent use of sometimes clunky, but always cinematic, sentences, this story may not have been called one of the “Best American Essays” in 1997.

Movement (In a Pastor’s Voice)

[a poem by Allen James]

I hear brains frying like fried green tomatoes

as we flip through life’s pages, trying

We urgently need movement

Yes we do.

Without movement

we’d experience irritability

Yes we would.

Like a new-born in need of

warm breast milk for suck,

a soothing back rub and such

Yes we do.

Even our bowels

need movement, or we get inflamed like Red Hots on inside

It starts showing up on the outside

Yes we do.

We were designed for movement

like in Exodus

male babies had to hide and move

or lose their life

Yes they did.

On our jobs

Our hard working jobs

Whether it’s sitting at a desk, bored to pieces

typing all day, staring at screens till are eyes are sore

we need

promotions

A raise, a bonus, some appreciation

for giving solid hours of our life to

Them

Although we are servants

and we consider the busy ant,

we get tired

Plant us on a pair of Boeing 747 wings

We want higher, and higher, and higher

Movement gives a sense of satisfaction

so we give action, and more action

as our lives symbolize balled fists

We fight like Evander, or Tyson, or Bow

Yes we do.

For the good life

we need movement

Yes we do!

The Unwanted Chickens

[an analysis by Michaela Tashjian]

Mary Clearman Blew’s “The Unwanted Child” opens with the narrator’s discovery that she is pregnant. While the end of the story returns to this discovery and the concerns of the opening scene, the reader does not arrive there until after he or she has partaken of the array of conflict, questions, and insecurities that surface with Blew’s exploration of the history of women in her family. The title of Blew’s piece tells of its central theme: unwantedness. At first glance, one expects the story to focus on the unborn child which the narrator does not want. Just a few pages in, however, the focus moves from the narrator’s future motherhood to her past daughterhood. The fourth scene begins, “My mother was an unwanted child” (46). As Blew investigates her mother’s childhood unwantedness, the reader finds the author in the territory of her own childhood suspicion that she too was unwanted by her mother. Her memories, haunted by a lack of context, raise many questions for her. The author’s eloquent use of questions in “The Unwanted Child” makes it a strong piece; she slips them into the narrative with a subtlety that holds the story together, making it more emotionally resonant than a traditional narrative.

The first questions in the text are the narrator’s responses to her husband’s ranting about pregnancy prevention theories: “What difference does it make now? Why can’t he shut up?” These questions are saturated with anxiety, weariness, and grief. They say more than “I wish he would shut up,” and say it more eloquently than “I feel anxious, weary, and distraught, and I just want to be left alone.” The next question, “Why get married at eighteen?” refamiliarizes the reader with the narrator’s voice and sets up the context of the following back story; no time or attention is wasted in scenery description. When Blew returns to the present conflict (her pregnancy) after discussing her mother, she again uses questions to draw the reader’s attention: “And the pregnant eighteen-year-old? What about her?” She soon moves on to the real question of the text, not the question of “What will I do?” one my ask when presented with a giant of a problem, but the question “What could I have done differently?” that one often asks him or herself in the years after the problem has long since worn out its welcome.

Another aspect of this work which is vital to its successfulness is the timing of its most disturbing scene, the heart of the story. While the location of the story’s heart is up to the reader’s interpretation, it goes without saying that the scene on page 51 is a likely contestant: Blew’s mother, upon finding seven-year-old Blew in a tub of water with her little sister, accuses her of wanting to murder her sister. This is a traumatic moment for Blew, reminding her of an even more traumatic episode in her life: “I had . . . drowned a setting of baby chicks in a rain barrel,” she says of a time she had “wanted them to swim. I can just remember catching a chick and holding it in the water until it stopped squirming and then laying it down to catch a fresh one. I didn’t stop until I had drowned the whole dozen and laid them out in a sodden yellow row” (51).

Blew describes the tragically innocent event so beautifully and matter-of-factly that its standing as the story’s crux is subtle. The scene and its relation to the episode of the little sister in the water tub open up all kinds of questions for the narrator: does she have a murderous impulse? Does her mother have a murderous impulse? Tarrying beneath the surface are the real questions of the piece: did my mother love me? am I capable of love? Certainly, the scene would lose its power if Blew had jumped into it at the very beginning: Let me tell you about a time I accidentally drowned some baby chickens.

Often, a writer will not end a piece with a question because it seems to defeat the purpose of conclusion. However, as illustrated in the above paragraphs, questions often come naturally with this narrator’s voice, and here, they express themes of anxiety and many other emotions with great economy of words.

No One Can Change the Past

[an analysis by Lydia Moeller]

The story “If You Knew Then What I Know Now” by Ryan Van Meter is about a pretend kiss between two boys that held heavy meaning for the young narrator, Meter, who witnessed it. Told in second-person point of view, and in a self-reflective manner, the story is about the narrator who is talking to his younger self about a choice he made to do a project with two boys, Mark and Jared, in the sixth grade. When the trio meet at Mark’s house to work on the project, Mark and Jared pretend to kiss in front of Meter. This created an uncomfortable encounter for Meter, one that came too soon for the naive narrator. Embodied in this kiss was a part of Meter—a part he was too young to fully understand and not ready to face or admit. He had not yet come to terms with the fact that he was gay, nor was he ready to openly express his inner feelings; this experience added to his confusion. The narrator calls it “the biggest kiss you ever saw,” which illustrates the monstrous impact it had on his early life. At the end of story, Jared and Meter meet again at their 10-year high school reunion, where some form of closure between them occurs. The story is told as a warning, in a sense, to his younger self that he would save his future-self much strife if he could avoid witnessing that kiss.

Ryan Van Meter writes this story in what I call an omniscient second-person point of view, and the result creates a profound resonance. For example: “You’ll knock on the closed door. You’ll think it’s odd that the door is closed,” is known as second-person point of view. Interestingly, though, for this story, the “you” to which the author is referring is really a younger version of himself. He recounts a particular event in the sixth grade that would not come to a resolution until his 10-year high school reunion. The author tells the story in an “if only” way, like, “if only you knew then” in the sixth grade “what I know now, then we could avoid all the discord that follow this event (hence the title of the piece). Here is a quote which demonstrates the “if only” attitude of the author: “If you do agree to meet with them at Mark’s house then I don’t know what to tell you. If you meet there it’s probably all going to happen the way it’s going to happen.” Prior to this, the narrator urges his younger self to “meet at the library” or to “see if there’s another group [young Meter] can get into.” The result of Meter choosing this perspective creates a personal feeling of empathy towards the character and a deeper understanding of Meter himself. His ability to portray that feeling so well in this piece by using the “omniscient second-person point of view” is what makes this story resonate with its reader, and have a deeper connection to the character in the story.

In choosing to do the project in the sixth grade with Mark and Jared, the first “kiss” he ever saw between two boys occurred, but it was one he wasn’t ready to see: “They are trying to get you to say things about yourself that you won’t be ready to say for several more years, and that’s what will hurt the most about this afternoon” (522). The reader can immediately assume the author is still at heart just an adolescent boy struggling with his sexuality, struggling to be normal and accepted. “One day someone will ask you about the first time you kissed a boy, and you will think of this kiss… the kiss that isn’t really a kiss and isn’t really yours… It will be the biggest kiss you ever saw.” Now an adult, Meter writes with a longing to spare his younger self from the pain of that what that kiss represented.

The second-person point of view creates a deeper emotional attachment for the reader, therefore the ending is much more climactic for the reader as well. Meter is approached by Jared at their 10-year high school reunion, and “[Meter] almost thought [he’d] made it through the night without talking to [Jared].” A bitter contempt is still there, which the reader can understand. The suffering is expressed throughout the piece by Meter, so when he sees Jared at the reunion it is easy to understand why he would want to avoid him. When Jared goes to apologize, Meter stops him, claiming he knows what he is going to say, but Meter feels, “It would seem too easy, too obvious for this tormentor to apologize at your reunion.” The resolution comes with this statement: “You think it’s strange that you assumed you were the only boy hurt by that kiss in Mark’s bedroom. But you see that Jared carries that day with him like you do; he carries a shame not very different from yours.” The point of view allows us to see Meter’s transformation; his epiphany that those boys, or Jared at least, have thought just as much about that kiss as Meter had, and have been left with guilt since that afternoon in the sixth grade.

The Dead Don’t Care

[an analysis by Krystal Davidowitz]

An Undertaker attempts to desensitize death.

Thomas Lynch opens a door into his world in “The Undertaking.” For years, he has been burying, cremating, selling caskets and urns, and renting out hearses to people who live in his town. As the only undertaker in that town, business is good, and he goes on explaining this by depicting the death rate, coming to the conclusion that in the end, there will always be a one hundred percent death expectancy. Everyone will die eventually. Lynch then explains that when people are alive, they care. They care about virtues, necessities, material things, money, and of course, they care about how they want to be taken care of when they die. That leads Lynch into the main theme of his story: the dead don’t care. Once someone dies, they are dead. Possessions, feelings, and thoughts don’t matter anymore because they are dead, and the dead don’t care, only the living do.

Lynch introduces us to Milo Hornsby who died last Monday in the early hours of the morning. Lynch is woken up by the new widow at 2 a.m. He starts his job at 2 a.m., not for Milo, but for Milo’s widow because she feels so much pain over her husband’s departure. Lynch gets into how his job is done. He goes to the hospital to check out the body. Then he brings Milo to the funeral home to set his features: close Milo’s eyes, mouth, and overlap his hands on his stomach. While doing this, Lynch recalls his only memory of Milo: When Lynch’s wife left him and his two children, Milo did Lynch’s laundry for two months at the laundry mat that he owned and only charged him sixty dollars. Lynch asked Milo what the total bill really was, and Milo had responded, “Never mind that, one hand washes the other.”

“Once you are dead, put your feet up, call it a day, and let the husband or the missus or the kids or a sibling decide whether you are to be buried or burned or blown out of a cannon or left to dry out in a ditch somewhere. It’s not your day to watch it, because the dead don’t care.”

The emotion Lynch uses in his writing is detached and slightly sarcastic. In order for him to really get his point across (that the dead don’t care), he chooses not to write sympathetically or empathetically towards the people who have died or have known loss. Instead, he chooses to write in a manner void of all emotion. In a way, Lynch writes as if he doesn’t even care. His apathetic voice that is consistent through the piece helps the reader grasp the fact that once someone is dead, they’re dead, and the dead don’t care.

The Bite that Tears Everything to Uncertainty

[an analysis by Juan Underbakke]

 

Joy Williams’ non–fiction piece, “Hawk,” focuses on her relationship with her dog and the moment her dog, Hawk, attacks her. Early on, the narrator tells the reader about the attack that is eventually going to happen later on. She teases it before switching the focus to Glenn Gould. Glen was a composer whose music was used as the score to Slaughter House Five. Glenn’s father seemed to care more about his new wife, Glenn’s stepmother, than his own son, “He didn’t want him to die on his stepmother’s birthday.” Williams goes to great length to explain who Glenn Gould was, she even tells the reader how much money he donated in his will to the Humane Society. However Williams’ thoughts confess she knows nothing about Glenn Gould. Williams even goes on to describe the words on Glenn’s tombstone and the meaning behind them. The narrator then divulges her life, but only in relation to her dog. She reflects about past dogs she’s had and the dogs her parents had when she was growing up. One day after Williams felt a sharp pain that became too intense to bare, the narrator’s friends took her to the doctor. However before Williams goes, she drops off Hawk, her dog, at the kennel. Suddenly her friendly and very close dog attacks her. As a result of the attack, one of her hands will never be able to work the same. The injuries that Williams endures do not bother her too much. She is more torn and hurt by the fact she has lost her German Shepard companion, Hawk.

At home, I stood in the shower, howling, making deep ugly sounds. I had lost my dog.

The Band-Aids we put over my cuts had cartoon characters all over them. We didn’t take our medicine cabinet seriously. For some reason I had papered it with newspaper pictures of Bob Dole’s hand clutching its pen. I put clean clothes on but the blood seeped around the Band-Aids and stained them too. I put more Goofy and Minnie Band Aids on and changed my clothes again.

I wrapped my hand in the dish towel. Hawk’s water dish was still in the kitchen, his toys were scattered around. (pg 546)

There are several elements at work to make this piece what it is. That being said, I believe Joy Williams relies heavily on characterization, both direct and indirect, in Hawk. By characterization, I mean the craft of conveying information/descriptions that lead to a character being fully rounded or not. Not all characters need to be fully developed. At times, Williams has her characterization “doing double work” and sometimes even “triple work.” She uses direct and indirect at the same time. I think the brief passage above illustrates a key moment of the story as well as revealing the level of characterizations that occurred.

All the characterizations that Williams uses after the line, “I had lost my dog,” effectively emphasize the narrator’s fixation on the tiny details of her Band-Aid, such as there their appearance, “I put on more Goofy and Minnie Band-aids.” This shows the level of shock and disbelief the narrator was experiencing. The author is using indirect characterization here to show the mindset of a woman who had just been attacked by her and dog and thereby lost him. The narrator copes with the loss of “Hawk” by examining her bathroom, “for some reason I had papered it with newspaper pictures of Bob Dole’s hand clutching its pen.” While the attention to detail would seem out of the ordinary for someone who had been attacked by a dog at the surface level, it exposes the broken psyche of the narrator. Joy Williams effectively uses indirect and direct methods of characterization to develop and illustrate the well-rounded characters of Glenn Gould, Hawk, and the Narrator. Williams dramatically used both forms of characterization.

 

Tensing Up

[an analysis by Laura Ragland]

In “The Pat Boone Fan Club,” Sue William Silverman takes the reader through her on-going obsession with a singer. The story begins in present tense and includes flashbacks to her childhood when the affair begins. Silverman describes, in the present tense, a concert inside of a church in order to exemplify her current obsession with Pat Boone. She then takes us back to her childhood bedroom, which is a more intimate setting as she recalls the vivid emotions of her connection to Pat and his family. Silverman goes back and forth from the current scene to flashbacks of her remembrance of Pat and his emotional effect on her childhood. She also recalls an earlier concert she attended when she failed to tell him what she meant to express. This story shows Silverman’s emotional attachment to Pat due to her own horrific relationship with her father.

This piece’s tense changes throughout caught my attention the most. The present tense allows the reader to feel more involved in the story, and the flashbacks provide background knowledge. The flashbacks also allow Silverman to tell the reader what she truly wants to talk about, which is her abusive father, without her having to give too many details. Since this story isn’t about her father, she does not want to talk about him. However, he is important because he highlights Silverman’s emotional attachment to Pat. Her earliest attachment to Pat comes when she is a teenager. The intimacy of this moment is immediately noted, as the scene is set with Silverman “curled up on the baby-blue bedspread” of her New York home. The careful attention to detail here—even down to the color of the bedspread—highlights the author’s vulnerability in that moment. The recollections of the exact details draw the reader in, as this flashback captures her intense emotions towards Pat. She remembers feeling as if she tumbled “inside the photograph, we remained static on this one particular day, suspended at 3:40…trapped together, me on the tandem bike directly behind him, leaning toward him.” The use of past tense here captures the moment beautifully because it sets up for a scene at the end of the story where Silverman brings this picture up to Pat in present tense. This is what she always remembered and served as Pat being the “safe father” she always needed but never had.

The present day interaction between Pat and Silverman is interesting as well because upon meeting him, Silverman questions what he has truly represented for her; “Safety?” “Purity?” “Holiness?” Yet she ends up telling him, “[Y]ou were everything.” I find it interesting that she used the past tense here: “were.” It’s as if in her grown up state, she now questions if he really represented anything at all or if he still does. However, on the final page of the story, she concludes that yes, he did offer her hope; “His image. His milky-white image.” This gives him a god-complex in her life, which makes sense seeing as she swore off organized religion after her brutal childhood. As in all of her stories, Silverman shows readers her emotions without specifically telling them, and in this case, she did so most specifically through the use of tense changes.

A Recipe For Tone

[an analysis by Brian Childers]

In E. J. Levy’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”, the narrator begins the piece by talking about her mother’s passion for cooking and how she uses it to assert her domain in a loveless marriage. Food is a common element in the text, as it connects with the narrator’s own desires for finding love, even though her mother failed. It was the narrator’s inclination that love was the end all-be all, and relationships could not work without it, which is why Levi had trouble settling down, and immersed herself in cooking as her mother did. It is to her chagrin, that her parents remained together their whole lives, despite that fact that they only “like” each other. As the narrator states, there are “other painful, difficult things that bind people more surely than love ever will” (296).

An element of craft that helps this story reach its full potential is the tone of the voice. The tone is analytical and distant, even when Levi talks about subjects close to her, such as her parents’ marriage, or her own realization of lesbianism. This corresponds to the subject matter, as the story reads almost like a cookbook. A lack of passion and just the facts, presented by a person whose passion should be paramount.

“I like your father,” she said. “That is more important.” I do not disremember this. It remains with me like a recipe I follow scrupulously, an old family recipe. And when in my first year of graduate school my lover asks me if I love her, I try to form an answer as precise as my mother’s before me; I say, “I am very fond of you, I like and respect you,” and watch as pain rises in her face like a leavening loaf (296)

Within this passage, the tone of the voice demonstrates Levi’s desperate attachment to cookbook regulations and following in the footsteps of her mother. She remembers her mother’s comments on her marriage “like a recipe [she] follows scrupulously, an old family recipe” (296). This example, a microcosm of the story’s tone of voice, shows the coldness and distance that the speaker maintains, even while on the subject of her own family. Even when talking to her lover, Levi uses precise answers. She calculates and chooses her words carefully, keeping herself detached from what could possibly be a loving relationship.

The speaker’s isolation from emotion and feelings conveys the tone of the piece. She views her life as a recipe card, a series of instructions and a mix of ingredients. This is shown when Levi bought a used copy of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”, and she “scanned the book as if it could provide an explanation, as if it were a secret record of my mother’s thwarted passion” (298).

Thus, by trying to connect with her mother, the author voided herself of emotion, just as her mother did. She has become nothing more than a “secret record” within the confines of a cook book. Levi’s mother used cooking in place of love, and as the speaker attempted the same feat, she sacrificed her emotion in the process.

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