“Two things to get straight from the beginning: I hate doctors and have never joined a support group in my life. At seventy-three, I’m not about to change. The mental health establishment can go screw itself on a barren hilltop in the rain before I touch their snake oil or listen to the visionless chatter of men half my age. I have shot Germans in the fields of Normandy, filed twenty-six patents, married three women, survived them all, and am currently the subject of an investigation by the IRS, which has about as much chance of collecting from me as Shylock did of getting his pound of flesh. Bureaucracies have trouble thinking clearly. I, on the other hand, am perfectly lucid.” — first paragraph of “Notes to My Biographer,” a story from the collection, You Are Not a Stranger Here by Adam Haslett
Would you read on?
The narrator is in your face from the beginning, making sure you “get things straight.” What do we know about the narrator? He’s a “take no prisoners” kind of guy. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly. And he has a low opinion of the mental health establishment—for good reason as we learn later in the story. He’s a man of action, having been a fighter, a lover, and an inventor. He may be hiding some of his income from the feds (we gotta love him for that); his reference to Shakespeare lets us know he’s got a decent education; and he has a very high opinion of himself. He’s also highly unusual in that he’s survived all three of his wives.
This man is setting us up for a funny and poignant drama between himself and his son. What could have been a gloomy father-son relationship story is elevated to the sublime—something many writers forget when they set out to tell a serious story. And his last statement sets up for (and clues us in to) the fact that he may not be a reliable narrator. Hmmmm. Interesting.
We don’t know a single detail about where he is, what he’s doing, what he looks like, or anything to put us in his physical world. Right now, we are taking a tour of this guy’s mind. And it turns out that’s right where we should be, ready for action and watching the train wreck from front row seats.
I want to read the rest of this guy’s story.