Monday, August 28, 2006

Workshop: Soon enough

I approach criticising Father Luke’s story with some trepidation. I’m one of the Father’s biggest fans. He writes very much like Bukowski, but with a depth Bukowski never had, and a subtlety that I think Bukowski aimed for but rarely achieved. When Father Luke is successful, which he is sometimes but not always, he finds a huge theme in a tiny moment. Like Bukowski’s, his stories are often autobiographical or quasi-autobiographical. They are hardbitten but not entirely cynical. The impression is of an insightful man whom life has toughened but whose flame has not gone out.

Having said that, at first I wasn’t entirely convinced by Soon enough. I felt some discomfort in tone. I know this is new ground for Father Luke, but some of the confidence is gone from his writing. I think the central metaphor is quite obvious – I would have been surprised if no one had made the connection between train trip and life’s journey. That’s not to say Father Luke hasn’t used it neatly; he has (and I’m hoping that I can find a place or two where I can show that the Father’s eye for the telling detail really puts colour into the metaphor). But I felt maybe he could have gone on with it. However, thinking about it, I reckon that the denouement rescues it.

Soon Enough

Presently the train pulled into the station.


The first sentence, we all know, although it doesn’t “make or break” the story, sets the tone, sometimes irrevocably. I didn’t like “Presently”. It has such specialised usage (commonly in “I’ll be there presently”, where it means “very soon” and “he is presently head of equities”, where it is used for “now”, not that “now” is needed, given that the present tense in this context says “now”) that I struggled to make meaning with it. I wonder whether it is saying “Just then, the train...” or “Soon afterwards, the train...”

I would like either here. They make the sentence much more interesting than simply plainly stating that the train pulled into the station (although I’m enough of an admirer of plain writing to feel that is a perfectly decent start). The first says that something has been going on and it’s quite abruptly interrupted. It makes the character – whom we are yet to meet, so it could be characters – pre-exist. The second gives an even stronger idea of something’s having happened. And on top of this, we generally use it to say “this is the next significant thing that happened”. It conveys weight both to what has gone and what is to come.

I liked that it’s the train. This makes the train a focus of interest, because it’s not just any train. We are tipped off that the train is significant to the character(s). If the train was just the insignificant mode of transport in a story, it’d be “a” train.

Do I really think short phrases or single words really convey such a huge freight of meaning. Yes, I do. Sometimes, there’s a happy chance to do a lot of work with a few words. Not always: some of the time there just is more to say, but on occasion there is le mot juste.


There were three cars
including the train's engine.


I think this is too simple and would have read better as a more active sentence without the existential there is. Because I would choose “the engine pulled two cars”, I’d need to change my first-sentence “pulled” into, maybe, “drew”.

The conductor wore a black cap, wire
glasses and black sleeve protectors.


As a very minor matter, Father Luke is an American, so there should be a comma before the “and”.

I liked “black cap”. I immediately thought “hanging judge”.


He held the brim of his hat and
jumped onto the gravel of the tracks near the outside platform.



I like that he held onto his hat. Because it is what you say when someone does something daring, isn’t it? Father Luke isn’t too familiar with trains. If he was, he’d probably have said “trackway” rather than “tracks” (which to me at least are just the rails) and “up platform” or “down platform” for “outside platform” (the latter is okay but if the platforms weren’t numbered, this is how you’d probably refer to them).

He
walked into an empty train station.

Glare made it impossible to see inside the windows of the train.


“through the windows of the train” or “inside the train”. You can’t write both together because the sentence says you are literally trying to see inside the window pane.


Inside the middle car, Pastor Mc Corkhill sat watching a coin spin on
a table with his forearms resting on his thighs, flattening the crease
in his black pants.


Whether intentionally or not, here is something Father Luke always does well: neat observation. The pastor does not just have his forearms resting on his thighs, but is resting on them firmly enough to flatten the crease in his pants. I know that that doesn’t have to be too firm but the point is, you know the author has seen someone slumped onto their knees and has thought, man, they’re so slumped that they’ve flattened out their trousers.


Life moves us, he thought, watching the coin. Moves us, and moves
through us with little or no matter as to our preferences. All in all
there is no real fairness to it at all. A ride with no choices and but
one final destination.


Because the coin metaphor is often used in poker, I think of coins as the symbol of chance. I see a contradiction here that I think works very well. When I read “pastor” (and note that it’s the black-hat type), I start thinking of the more protestant Protestants, if you know what I mean). I think of John Calvin, and of course the notion that our lives are predestined and God’s will, not your free will, is done. The contradiction is that the pastor is thinking that life is controlled not by God’s will but by chance.

The silver coin slowed and dropped to one side. Pastor Mc Corkhill
reached his left arm up, tugged at his cuff so that white sleeve
showed from under his black coat. He picked the coin up with his right
hand and spun it. He glanced to the window, squinting against the
glint of the setting sun as it reflected off the tin roof of the
station.


Squint and glint jingle a bit, and setting suns don’t really “glint”. Father Luke must have a similar late afternoon to ours, because at five o’clock it becomes almost impossible to drive west, because the low sun is blinding. I’d maybe just go for “light” or just “squinting against the setting sun...” As a minor matter, I might have preferred "glanced through the window". If he was looking at the window rather than through it, I would write "glanced at the window". Partridge is good for writers who struggle with the correct prepositions to use with verbs.


The conductor walked to the train. He grabbed hold and pulled himself
up and into the train.

Presently the train began moving.

Presently works here for the reasons it didn’t work previously. Here it means “Soon afterwards” with a hint of “as expected”.


It would arrive at it's destination
soon enough.


“its”.

Now this sentence rocked. “Soon enough” nearly always has the implication “so don’t be in a hurry” or at least of “unhurriedness”, sometimes even unwantedness, as in “If I never see him again, that’ll be soon enough for me”. It’s also a rather insouciant phrase. It’s a weary phrase, a sighing phrase; it says “I can’t be fucked”. The train will make its destination soon enough but yeah, so what? Who cares, next…

Suddenly, I realise Father Luke has set us up. The portentousness of the black cap and the dark-clad priest and conductor, and so on, has led us to feel that this is all very serious. But the Father leaves us with a shrug. In a sentence, he has dismissed life’s journey and you realise that he is not saying life is like a journey, blah blah, but that life is something you simply ride in, no more significant than a train trip from here to there. He says yeah, you know, it’s all very exciting but you just sit back in your seat and, because trains just do go where they’re going, you’ll get where you’re going soon enough.

That’s my opinion. I’d be glad to hear others. Obviously there are the comments but if I get an email about the story, I’ll post it. I am posting the story in full below so that it can be read. As with all these stories, just so it’s clear, the copyright in all these stories belongs to its author, whose right to be identified as the author I of course respect by affixing their name (a far more important right than copyright, in my view), and the story is posted here with the author’s permission, their rights reserved.

***

Soon Enough

Presently the train pulled into the station. There were three cars
including the train's engine. The conductor wore a black cap, wire
glasses and black sleeve protectors. He held the brim of his hat and
jumped onto the gravel of the tracks near the outside platform. He
walked into an empty train station.

Glare made it impossible to see inside the windows of the train.
Inside the middle car, Pastor Mc Corkhill sat watching a coin spin on
a table with his forearms resting on his thighs, flattening the crease
in his black pants.

Life moves us, he thought, watching the coin. Moves us, and moves
through us with little or no matter as to our preferences. All in all
there is no real fairness to it at all. A ride with no choices and but
one final destination.

The silver coin slowed and dropped to one side. Pastor Mc Corkhill
reached his left arm up, tugged at his cuff so that white sleeve
showed from under his black coat. He picked the coin up with his right
hand and spun it. He glanced to the window, squinting against the
glint of the setting sun as it reflected off the tin roof of the
station.

The conductor walked to the train. He grabbed hold and pulled himself
up and into the train.

Presently the train began moving. It would arrive at it's destination
soon enough.

Father Luke 2007

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