What Makes a Great Short Story? (‘The Dead Roads’ by DW Wilson)

Article by Professor Charles E. May

DW Wilson, ‘The Dead Roads’ BBC Winner, 2011

In his Guardian review, John Burnside says that the characters in DW Wilson’s stories in Once You Break a Knuckle are tough, hard-drinking laborers, who are also “tender, confused, and painfully vulnerable—romantics under the calluses” yearning for connection but too raw to make the attempt.  Reminded me of a description from an old television series of a woman’s ideal man—a handsome truck driver who is also a poet.

Rosemary Westwood in The Globe and Mail says Wilson writes “rough prose about the play between masculinity and insecurity,” while Steven W. Beattie talks about a “vulnerability that lies just beneath the surface” of Wilson’s character’s tough exteriors—characters that another reviewer called “testosterone-fueled” men in a hardscrabble small town in British Columbia. Allison Pearson, one of the judges of the Dylan Thomas Prize, for which Wilson’s collection Once You Break a Knuckle was shortlisted, said Wilson’s prose echoed Raymond Carver’s “tough and lonely lyricism.” Sue McGregor, chair of the judges of the 2012 BBC award says she first thought the story was too “macho,” but then was won over by Wilson’s “original voice.”

And indeed it is “voice,” not macho male bluster that Wilson has said comes first in his short stories, the writing process of the form beginning with finding a certain “cadence” that drives you forward line by line, working a single sentence over and over to maintain that rhythm.

Many short story writers have emphasized the importance of syntactical rhythm in the form. Truman Capote once said he wished always to maintain a stylistic and emotional upper hand over his short story material. “Call it precious and go to hell,” barked Capote, “but I believe a story can be wrecked by a faulty rhythm in a sentence or a mistake in paragraphing, even punctuation.”  Harold Brodkey once said, “The music of language carries more of the real meaning [in the short story] than the literal meaning of words does. A shift in the mind, in the mood, and you lose control of that music.” American author Charles D’Ambrosio agrees, claiming that “It’s the musical nature of sentences, where you actually hear the sound in a meaningful way, and those sounds have meaning and nuances as important as any of the content.”

Short story writer Amy Hempel once said that when she starts a story, she often knows the beat, the rhythm of the first line or first paragraph, without knowing what the words are. “I’ll be doing the equivalent of humming a tune over and over again, and then this tune will be translated into a sentence. I trust that. There’s something visceral about the musical quality of a sentence.”  Her fellow short story writer, Deborah Eisenberg agrees, noting that in her stories, “Sometimes there’s a kind of tonality that I want, almost as if I were writing a piece of music.”  And David Means says about his experience writing the short story: “You listen to a song and get a bit of narrative along with beat and tone and sound and images, then the song fades out, or hits that final beat, and you’re left with something that’s tangible and also deeply mysterious.”

It is a working class, hard knuckle, have-a-drink, smoke-a-joint, drop- your-drawers exterior combined with a sensitive, romantic, try-to-understand-me, I-can-be-hurt interior that is hard to resist in “The Dead Roads,” which won the 2011 BBC National Short Story Contest. It is also shit-kicking, seemingly careless, I don’t-give-a-damn tough talk held together by carefully controlled syntactical rhythms—a kind of camouflaged artifice that appeals to the reader’s sense of superiority and conflicted empathy–that makes the story work. You like Wilson’s characters, but only at the distance created by the prose’s rhythmic control; you probably would not tolerate them long in “real life.”

‘DW Wilson’s “testosterone-fueled,” working-class men derive from a long tradition of such men in American short fiction.’

Here are some examples of that rhythmic control that makes “The Dead Roads” work so well. It is no accident that most of the best sentences focus on the love story that makes us empathize with the central character:

“Vic’ll crack you with a highball glass if you say the wrong thing, she can do that. We weren’t really dating, either. She just came home in the summer to score a few bucks slopping mortar, and we’d hook up. I don’t know anyone prettier than Vic. She’s got a heart-shaped face and sun freckles on her chin and a lazy eye when she drinks and these wineglass-sized breasts I get to look at sometimes.”

“In the distance, the horizon glowed from the park lights and the treetops resembled hundreds of heated needles. I kept the high beams on and scanned for marble eyes, but Walla told me that all the deer fled north with the  beetles—Nothing here but us and the flies, he said.—Gas bloodweed. A thousand dead acres. –The dead roads  or something.”

“Vic’s old man once told me a guy needs to know when to pick his battles, and as I watched Animal pissing as if nothing mattered, I figured it out: a guy needs to know what he cares about most, and Animal, well, he didn’t care about stuff.  But he had to know I did.  Christ, everybody in the valley knew I did.”

“She leaned in and kissed me and she tasted all cabbagey like dope, and soft, and her smooth chin ground on my middle-of-the-knight stubble, But I couldn’t kiss her right then.  I don’t know why. She slicked her tongue over my lips and I couldn’t get my head around the whole thing, the ferris wheel and what Walla said and how I almost got Animal killed, and Vic, you know, and the whole goddamn thing.”

“Never liked a girl so much. Nothing else to it. I just cared about her more than the university guy did or Animal did or maybe her old man did. I should’ve told her so, or who I wished she didn’t have to go west, or how I’d had a ring for her for years but lacked the balls to do anything with it. Even then, the mountaintop seemed like a last chance or something.”

“Christ, she was so pretty. Then she whipped the empty bottle off the summit, and I stared at her and thought about her and waited for the sound of the bottle breaking way, way below us.”

‘I see no beauty in the darkness of Donald Ray Pollock’s stories. I would defend his right to write about the self-indulgent junkies of Knockemstiff.  But I want nothing to do with them. ‘

DW Wilson’s “testosterone-fueled,” working-class men derive from a long tradition of such men in American short fiction—most recently evoked by Denis Johnson, Larry Brown, Chris Offutt, Breece D’JK Pancake, and Thomas McGuane.  But perhaps the most obvious short story writer who made “masculinity” his central focus was Barry Hannah.  Indeed, in a number of interviews, Hannah identified the image of the hard-talking barroom male as a persona for himself.  Lamenting that no one has come up with harmless whiskey and cigarettes, Hannah claimed that sex makes “death go away,” declared he liked violence because things “really meaningful come forth” when you are up against the wall, admitted that he knew nothing about women, and contended that his characters drink “not to escape life but to enter it.”  Hannah crowed, “It takes me a hell of a lot of living to write, mainly because I work so close to my own life.”

However, Hannah is neither naive nor insensitive about the problems men confront for themselves and create for women when they strike macho poses.  In fact, his stories are filled with men trying desperately to find ways to love women, be friends with men, and to respect themselves, while at the same time striving to come to terms with their sexual obsessiveness, their territorial possessiveness, and their frequent self-disgust.  A similar paradox pervades Hannah’s writing style.  On the one hand, he says that his writing is “pure improvisation,” claiming that he does not believe in heavy revision because it takes the “original soul” out of the writing.  On the other hand, many reviewers say that the only reason they are willing to forgive Hannah’s macho posturing is the beauty of his carefully constructed sentences. This very well may be true of DW Wilson’s characters also.

So, which is the real Barry Hannah–the violent, tough-talking sexist with the rambling barroom voice, or the sensitive, tightly controlled stylist exploring the complex difficulties of being male?  The answer, of course, is “both.”  Hannah once said, “If something is not worth getting obsessed about, then it’s not worth writing about.”  The key to understanding the seeming contradictions of Barry Hannah’s short fiction is knowing that his primary obsession is storytelling, or to use his own favorite synonym telling lies, and that–in spite of accusations that Hannah’s characters lie because they are unable to face the truth–for Barry Hannah telling lies and getting at the truth are not contradictions but complex interconnections.

Critics who have called Hannah’s short fiction “brutal,” “savage,” and “sexist” have reacted only to the posturing surface voice and thus missed the complex tenor of the undertone.  In spite of his macho swaggering and his apparent barroom rambling, Barry Hannah has a masterful control of the English language and a keen understanding of how strange and puzzling it is to be merely a man in the world.

However,  focusing on men who think little and act macho can lead to unlikeable characters if they are not redeemed by “carefully constructed sentences.” A few years ago, the Wall Street Journal ran an article by Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg entitled “A New American Voice” about Knockemstiff, a debut collection of stories by a new writer named Donald Ray Pollock.

Knockemstiff is a page-turner, all right, but primarily because it is all action and little thought and because Pollock’s style is simple and well edited—in short, an easy visceral read.  The people who live in the little hardscrabble hamlet of Knockemstiff (which is about eight or ten miles south of Chillicothe, Ohio) snort Bactine out of paper bags, have sex with their siblings, eat nothing but fried bologna, cheese slices, and Krispie Kreme donuts, drink a lot of beer and cheap booze, run meth labs, get hooked on OxyContin, beat up their kids, masturbate with toy dolls and a mud dauber’s nest, and rape ”retards” (to use the language of the addicts, drunks, and lay-about that populate Knockemstiff).

The fact that Pollock is a high school dropout, a recovering alcoholic, and a laboring man who went to college late and started writing made what Doubleday’s marketing director called “a great publicity hook to go out with.”  The fact that such a man was able to write at all made the yuppies in the New York publishing world ooh and ah.  The fact that he wrote about disgusting people in a funny-named village in the Appalachian mountains made them shake their heads in condescending disgust and nod their heads in agreement that this stuff could sell.

I see no beauty in the darkness of Donald Ray Pollock’s stories. I would defend his right to write about the self-indulgent junkies of Knockemstiff.  But I want nothing to do with them.  It takes a very fine writer with a miraculous style to transform the sad and lonely people of rural Russia, Dublin Ireland, or Winesburg, Ohio into characters of depth and complexity.  Donald Ray Pollock is no Turgenev, James Joyce, or Sherwood Anderson.  He has created a lineup of ignorant irredeemables who are what my mother would call “trashy”– “mean as snakes” and “ornery as polecats.”

DW Wilson’s story “The Dead Roads” may focus on working class, hard knuckle, have-a-drink, smoke-a-joint, drop- your-drawers men on the road, but the story actually works because its central character is in love, and Wilson knows how to create a rhythm of that romantic reality that the reader finds hard to resist.


Prof. Charles E. May is professor emeritus at California State University, Long Beach. He is the author/editor of ten books, including ‘Short Story Theories’, ‘New Short Story Theories, The Short Story: The Reality of Artifice’, ‘I Am Your Brother: Short Story Studies’, and over 200 articles and reviews on the short story. He publishes weekly essays on the blog Reading the Short Story.

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