Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Marshall Boswell Goes Nuclear

Posted By on Wed, Aug 12, 2009 at 4:55 PM

As in: "nuclear" family in a short story called "Father Figure." It appears in the inaugural issue of the literary magazine The Rome Review (out of Washington, D.C.; real nice website; check it out), but it appears that your standard nuclear family ain't what it was.

True, in "Father Figure," there's a father, but he's no longer married to the woman who's the mother of their two children. When the story opens, those kids are arriving in Memphis for an extended stay with their father, who lives in Midtown. The son, age 17, barely says a word — glares is more like it when his father tries to engage him in conversation, stares is more like it when the boy is sitting glued to the set — the TV set, which, during the first few days of this visit, runs nonstop (and that includes the latest paternity battles on Maury Povich's trash TV talk show).

The younger sister, though, is more forthcoming — and understanding — beneath her Goth exterior. She doesn't seem bothered (or is she?) by the fact that her father is now in love and living with a man who is 15 years his junior, which may or may not be a problem for everybody involved: ex-husband, ex-wife, two children, and a guy who maybe missing the club scene, gay division. The problem here, definitely: the arrival of the son's girlfriend with some news. That's not all that's a problem, though. Read "Father Figure" to find out.

And to find out some background on the story, here's Marshall Boswell, the author and associate professor in the English Department at Rhodes College, in his own words — on "Father Figure" in particular and the art of the short story in general:

"It's a newfangled nuclear family, and the idea for the story came from the opening image — that is, of the lurking teenage children emerging from that airplane tunnel. As an opening sentence it worked because it had such a clever hook to it: Are we watching a birth here, or is this some other tunnel? Then, as I began to imagine who might be standing in the gate waiting for these children, I wanted to continue upsetting expectations, though in a deadpan way.

"The two members of the gay couple in the story are loosely based on the guys who sold my wife and me our first house. One of them was, in fact, a 40-year-old who had been married once and who had two teenage children. When I first learned this, I thought, Wow, what a neat solution to an otherwise elusive goal — namely, gay parenting. But as I began to think more about my character's situation, I began to see that that situation was much more complicated than it might have seemed at first blush. He was a divorced parent, after all, and there's nothing neat or tidy about that at all.

"What do I want readers to come away with? I suppose I want them to empathize with the main character. After having gone to so much trouble to change his life and affirm, finally, who he is as a sexual being, he realizes that, in the end, he's first and foremost a father. In the final image of 'Father Figure' he acknowledges that, in choosing to care for his grandson, he will more than likely lose his glamorous lover. But he also experiences the loss as that of a father letting go of a child. All of which might be too much to put into a final sentence, but I do hope readers sense some of that when they reach the end.

"That's the whole trick of a story. Your job as a writer is to carefully build the narrative and the tension and the details so that the final image closes the piece with the 'click' that illuminates everything in a new way, though in a way your readers now see as inevitable. That's hard to do, of course, and as a writer you're never quite sure if you've pulled it off. But the possibility of achieving that trick is enough to keep you writing."

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