New Fiction April 2006

A Close Read

What makes good writing good
"Here was a man to be trusted. Here was a man with a handshake. A man who parted his graying dark hair razor-sharp on the left side of his scalp. For certain of his public appearances he wore makeup including inky-black mascara lightly brushed against his eyelashes. For their trips to Chester, Pennsylvania, to South Philly and Camden, New Jersey, he wore tinted glasses in stylish metal frames. He whistled, he was in good spirits. He rarely spoke of his week at the state capitol except to tell Philip that things were going very well. He did not inquire after Philip's mother or sister. He would have shaved just before picking Philip up at the Pennington Academy, Friday afternoon at 3:20 p.m. He smelled of after-shave and something sweet like vanilla."

—from High Lonesome: Stories 1966-2006, by Joyce Carol Oates

Oates is superb at suggesting the sinister. From the first bold, bald sentence here, the man is suspect. As anyone who’s taken a freshman English class knows, when a writer unambiguously declares a character good, she generally means the opposite. Oates underscores her point with the sentence that follows, the near-identical structure with “handshake” in the place previously occupied by “trusted” signaling that the substance of this trustworthiness may consist merely of a symbol. Oates’s details, while never overtly negative, further reveal the man’s dubious nature. There is obvious vanity in his meticulous attention to his appearance, vanity and deception in his use of makeup and tinted glasses, and downright creepiness in his application of mascara, which Oates emphasizes by lingering over its description. After all of this, his sweet scent seems designed to mask something rotten. The minuteness of these observations, along with the precision surrounding the pickup (a reminder that the story is from the point of view of the man’s son, Philip)—the name of the school, the exact minute, the redundancy of “afternoon” and “p.m.—emphasize the man’s contrasting vagueness concerning his work and his family. What interests this creep is something worth shaving for. What is he doing with his son in Chester, South Philly, and Camden?

Presented by

Christina Schwarz is the author of the novels Drowning Ruth and All Is Vanity.

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