Sunday, July 31, 2011

stealth endings in short stories

Occasionally as readers we encounter short stories that have 'stealth' endings. The stealth tag relates to the USAF B-2 Stealth Bomber, which is designed to fly under any radar surveillance on the way to its destination. Sometimes the trajectory of a story is almost as elusive, and we don't quite know where or how an impact is going to be felt. We may put ourselves on guard not to be too devastated by the culmination of ominous warnings, but if the author can stay under the radar for the best possible moment to break through and deliver the unexpected, a stealth strike can be memorable.

I am currently reading an excellent short stories collection, "Binocular Vision," by Edith Pearlman (2011). A couple of her initial stories had this sort of stealth effect on me. A good opener for a discussion, though, that has long lingered in my mind, is "Million $$$ Baby," by F.X. Toole, included in his story collection Rope Burns. The Oscar Award winning movie of the same name was based on this short story. It was about a young woman who had grown up in a hard-scrabble town in the Ozarks, and was intent on becoming a boxing champion as her way out of a bleak future. Maggie Fitzgerald wins the grudging help of a trainer/manager, Frankie Dunn. The writer, Toole, had worked as a 'cut-man,' patching up fighters during actual bouts, so he is able to write vivid fight scenes with Maggie in the ring. She fights her way to the top of her division, but is seriously injured and is hospitalized as a paraplegic. She has no hope, and asks Frankie to 'put her down.' Her plight is indeed hopeless, but this is way outside Frankie's religious beliefs. He has the means, though; he has frequently used legal injections to stem the flow of blood from fighters during bouts. He knows what too much can do, too, and it wouldn't be detected. Still, he refuses. Maggie seems to understand, but bites her tongue off in a later suicide attempt, which is thwarted. Another bedside scene, late at night, and Maggie pleads with Frankie by eye motions to do it. It becomes a devastating stealth scene. You didn't think he could, but it seemed somehow right.

In one of Pearlman's stories, "Tess," a child is born to a young woman of apparently limited mental ability. The child, Tess, has major congenital problems. Tess needs continuous life support systems and is connected by two IV tubes from the machines to her heart and intestinal system. Nonetheless she is a beautiful, though mostly listless, child, who is doted on by the nursing attendants. There are lovely, written scenes of the nurses attention and limited responses of the angelic child, but there doesn't seem to be any fulfilling outcome in store for the reader. First-person narratives by the young mother are interspersed throughout. She visits her child weekly in the beginning, while she tries to maintain her marginal, waitress job, but time between visits soon lengthens. She seems to keep a loving attitude, and vaguely understands her child's perpetual need for the tubes sustaining her life. In the stealth ending, she removes the slow pumping blood tube to Tess's heart and hides it beneath the sheets before she ends her final visit.

In Pearlman's story, "Fidelity," an aging travel writer with dimming sight lives with his wife near Boston. He doesn't actually travel, but writes of exotic travel adventures for a small, high-brow publication called World Enough. We get glimpses of his stories, which are very imaginative, and of the close relationship of the writer, Victor, his wife, Nora, and the editor in New York, Greg. The editor is always very solicitous in his calls and letters to Victor and Nora, and they were all close friends when everyone lived in New York. When an unusual antique armoire in Greg's room turns up in one of Victor's stories, Greg is aware Nora must have described it to him. In Victor's next story, which we read with Greg, it describes a traveling couple lying in each others arms, awaiting the eruption of a volcano near their lodgings on an island, whereupon they "will sink into that blue that never changes, unlike the fitful New York sky you and she watched those afternoons Greg you bastard." Greg learns from their daughter that Victor dies soon afterward, then Nora ten days later, from swallowing something. A strong stealth ending, in which the infidelity unfolds at the very end.

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