Monday, June 28, 2010

The New Yorker: "The Kid" by Salvatore Scibona

There’s a kid wandering around the Hamburg airport and various airline personnel are trying to figure out what his story is. They aren’t able to communicate with him and he won’t tell them his name, or doesn’t seem to understand that they want to know his name. (He understands; he just knows he's not supposed to give out too much information!)

Then the story backs up and we find out that Elroy Heflin was in the army and was posted to the US Embassy in Riga, where he hooked up with Evija, whom he gets pregnant. She doesn’t want to get married (she doesn’t?--that's a twist that might be worth exploring), so when he is sent to Afghanistan she’s still in Riga with the kid. Then he’s back in the US visiting his father (his stepfather, actually, although that also isn't explored) and he gets an email that he can have the kid, she’s moving to Spain. He’s happy about this, he thinks (he’s crying, apparently), so he heads off to Riga to get the kid, Janis. A third party hands Janis over and off they go. He boards a plane with the boy, they have a layover in Hamburg, but then Elroy panics—he has no idea what to do next. (Um, passport? That might have been a good place to start. Why is this guy so clueless?) He leaves Janis in the bathroom while he goes off to think. One thing leads to another and he winds up on the flight to London, and then he just goes on to the US, and arrives at his stepfather’s place in Las Vegas. Oops.

He’s deployed two years later to Afghanistan again when he hears from Evija, saying that she’s back in Riga and wants him and Janis back. Uh-oh.

I have no idea if this is a story or an excerpt. It feels like an excerpt. Much of what we know we get in exposition, and the ending feels more like a beginning to me. What’s Elroy going to do now? How is he going to find Janis now? What are the consequences of what he's done? What's the deal with the stepfather?

Actually, that all sounds pretty interesting—but the story we’ve got here, not so much.

June 14 & 21, 2010: “The Kid” by Salvatore Scibona


Ann Graham said...

I enjoyed the story for the most part. It's based more on plot than character. Although, the characters are complex; they are somewhat superficially developed.

Ann Graham said...

Here's a link to my blog about the story:

F. Escobar said...

I agree that many interesting tangents were left unexplored. In fact, most of the Elroy Heflin sections appear narrated desultorily, hectically. Despite the lacunae that involves, I liked the story’s overall edginess. I also enjoyed how Janis’s misgivings about people are portrayed, propped on his parents’ advice and prejudices.

I have doubts about the way in which omniscience dips into the narrative. Sometimes, the musings are latched on to the character’s consciousness, and that’s fair game (“God crowded the world with wonders so that you wouldn’t forget what he told you to do. Elroy didn’t know if he’d forgotten or remembered”). Sometimes, they are off-stage voices commenting on life, which makes me think thrice about their place in the narrative (“These are the accidental kinks of habit that become our permanent selves”). Some of the information paraded on the page seems to come out of nowhere: the “ten different empires” that would’ve captured a Polish town (an aside at the beginning), or the history of the name Heathrow (near the end).

I liked some of the descriptive language. Sometimes very rich words are used, appropriate to the character or the situation (“The plum had detonated in Elroy’s teeth, and spattered his shirt with juice,” for instance). Comparisons are tricky, but Scibona pulls some of them off (e.g., “Jumbo jets faced the terminal windows like orcas nosing at the wall of an aquarium”).

Overall, “The Kid” is a good example of how to avoid flashbacks while keeping multiple stories (some simultaneous, some not) running. This same story, woven as flashbacks into the narrative present of the boy at the airport (which would fit into a standard recall-as-you-wait model), would’ve been dreadfully slow. Still, the story lacks something (more focus, greater depth in its characters—as Ann said—, more believable twists and turns—as Cliff said). Also, the ending is abrupt, almost lazy. I’m not about to start passing the story on to friends, but it’s one of the more enjoyable ones of the bunch.