Author: Sam Lipsyte
Appears in: The Best American Short Stories 2011
Premise: A group of misfits in the 1980s play Dungeons and Dragons and get their first idea of adult loss and pain. You can read it here.
Thoughts: Stories about childhood can be immensely powerful, and are also exceptionally difficult to do well. When done right, like in Mitchell’s Black Swan Green or Boyko’s OZY, you recognize your own childhood, with all the peer group power struggles and minor events of great importance. When done badly, they devolve into treacly melodrama with all the resonance of an afterschool special [I’m thinking of the painful dialogue in something like Cline’s Ready Player One]. Lipsyte’s story is certainly in the former camp, with the D&D players so outcast they don’t even play in the school-sanctioned group, they play at their friend Marco’s house, where Marco’s sadistic older brother, rumoured to have done time in a mental hospital for taking a bat to a classmate and exposing himself to girls in the neighbourhood, serves as their Dungeon Master. At the mercy of the Dungeon Master’s every whim, the narrator and his colleagues usually find their characters swiftly and repeatedly killed by everything from the town drunk to rectal cancer. What makes the story for me is the way Lipsyte skillfully sprinkles character detail throughout the narrative, sorting the boys in the group into their roles without it ever being ham-fisted or awkward.
An example, here talking about a member of the group, Cherninsky:
He’s the kid people whisper has no mother or father at home, but of course he does, they’re just old and stopped raising him years ago, maybe when his sister drowned. He always plays a thief, and even outside of the game, when he’s just Cherninsky, he steals stuff from the stores on Main.
Look at that. You get the kid’s whole life, his whole perspective on the world, in two sentences. And it works.
I tried to write a story about childhood, or adolescence rather, last year. It quickly devolved into the aforementioned treacly melodrama. The last time I looked at it, I found myself working out these lengthy character sketches for every boy in the story, which I’m sure is useful as an exercise, but might not really add much to a reader’s enjoyment if I find I’m getting bogged down in excessive description. Lipsyte may have drafted similar sketches for all the boys in his story, but his skill is distilling them down to their essence, to the most important thing a reader needs to know about them: the financial situation of the narrator’s family, Cherninsky’s dead sister, the dichotomy between the Dungeon Master’s sociopathy and Marco’s timidness. Lipsyte knows when to show one of these cards, and gives the readers a sense that they’re peeking in on a fully inhabited world.
Lesson Learned: Don’t get mired down in physical description or filling out a character’s entire life. When character details are give, find a unique way to give them, have them relate to something the character’s doing.
Favourite Line: “I crawl over to the window. In the next yard, some kids kick a ball. It looks amazing.”