Smith Henderson, "Number Stations"
A drunk driver runs over and kills a girl, and, although no one finds out he did it, he is tormented by guilt. That’s the gist of Smith Henderson’s “Number Stations” (One Story 136, May 30, 2010).
But it’s a gist you have to shake free from an avalanche of minor and major characters, subplots, near-miss affairs, ostriches, and cryptic radio transmissions. Here’s a sampler. The drunk driver’s name is Goldsmith. His mother takes pictures of Goldsmith’s daughter (Charity) perched on an ostrich led by a parolee (Bill) whom Goldsmith hired to work at his restaurant. The ostrich escapes, and makes it to the house of a young waitress (Emily), who also works at Goldsmith’s restaurant and whose virtuous and athletic boyfriend (Van) helps look for the runaway ostrich. It so happens that Emily is recovering from a party thrown by Goldsmith, and despite her blatant attempts at having sex with him, they end up talking until Goldsmith confesses that he killed the girl years before. While Goldsmith is at the party, his mother listens to a baby monitor and chances upon a frequency in which nothing is transmitted but numbers and code (this gives the story its title). At the end, Bill has an accident with boiling water when Emily walks into the restaurant to talk to Goldsmith, and parts of Bill’s skin peel right off while he talks about forgiveness.
There’s more: a prison riot, Van’s job tracking the size of a glacier, Charity’s sour experience at a sleepover, details about hot tub dynamics at a party, details about the restaurant. This is a lot to cover in 29 pages. And the story does sag under the weight of all the flotsam. It loses direction. It’s weird.
Well, the story’s first sentence is arresting precisely because it is weird. A grandmother is taking her own pictures of an ostrich? Huh? You keep reading, and, as you can tell, you’ll get all the weirdness the opening sentence promised. As you flip pages, you wonder “what outlandish or tawdry thing would happen” (28).
This has its payoffs. For one, it’s funny. The dialogues are a big part of the humor. Also, the episodic quality is intriguing. The story feels like a philatelist’s rendering of a novel: a huge canvas reduced to the size of a stamp, without the nonchalance to let go of the details and focus on the essentials.
Furthermore, the language is truly succulent. Often, you just sit back and enjoy the verbal pirouettes that tend to land on the right foot. At its best, it makes me think of McEwan’s prose used to describe the most hectic scenes from Pynchon’s V. (The One Story interview compares the story’s language with McCarthy’s.) Henderson has a talent for describing nature in a way that is full-blooded and fresh, even if at times wordy.
The hazards of using such virtuoso language take their toll. Some parts are heavy-handed with adjectives and adverbs (“Bill […] ran on his stiff new boots in the direction of the sharp, astonished barks” ; “Then he sat with his split hands dangling over his bent knees exhausted” ). Some descriptions press words and images to the point of springing a muscle, and the result is ungainly (“There were at least fifty-seven essences in his sideburns that, could she decoct and bottle them, would heal any wound on her body, would disinfect a gut shot, would recapitate her” ; “The audible prolapse of the world’s ice uncoupling” ).
Even with the bloated sentences, I can see why the story was chosen for publication. I mentioned the humor, the verbal feasts. There are undeniable signs of craft throughout, such as the interconnectedness of the disparate episodes, both in characters (Emily stands at the apex of the different plotlines) and language (the ostrich’s neck, for instance; in fact, Henderson called the ostrich a macguffin). There’s also a well-placed hint of what will happen to Goldsmith after the story ends. In spite of all that, the plotline needs work. You can see Henderson’s talents applied to a more focused plot with great results. This wasn’t the case with “Number Stations,” but when the descriptions and dialogues meet a less rambling plot, there’ll be a great story indeed.
The One Story interview for “Number Stations” has the longest questions I’ve seen in a One Story interview. Henderson says this during the interview: “my duty is to be interested in what I’m writing in the hope that my enthusiasms will become the readers’ enthusiasms.” Well said.
With this story, I end a fifteen-story trip to One Story, in which I followed a capricious path through older stories and then marched up to the present. Tomorrow I’ll post a list of those stories. As you can tell if you read these posts, I didn’t like all of the stories I wrote comments on. I adopted a maximalist approach to One Story, and perhaps I should settle for a minimalist approach from now on, commenting only on those stories I truly like. Still, I have a few notes ready on New Yorker stories. After posting those, minimalism it is.