Hello from the Dogpatch. In the style of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, comes Biscuit, a collection in process by Dogpatch Founder David Marx. For this “dogfight” round, we read and commented on “Charity’s Discovery,” a story from the collection in which the lead character crosses from girlhood to womanhood and hopefulness to bitterness. Below is a bit of the story along with our remarks to David. Feel free to chime in!
We’re also very pleased to announce that another of David’s Biscuit stories, “Merle, Molly and the Cast-Iron Frying Pan” is forthcoming in The Saint Ann’s Review.
—From “Charity’s Discovery”:
She had gone to the restroom and while she was away, Ed Billick put a tack on her chair. When Charity sat on the tack, she let out a little scream. Ed’s desk was next to Charity’s making his guilt obvious. Now the teacher, Gladys Horton, was preparing to punish him. Miss Horton walked slowly to Ed’s desk and as she did, Charity saw the look on her face; it belonged on the face of an executioner about to administer justice and eager to do the task.
“Honestly, it didn’t hurt at all,” Charity said, hoping to prevent Miss Horton from taking drastic action.
The teacher stared back at Charity and said, “If we don’t punish them when they’re young, they will surely grow up to be criminals.”
It’s been awhile since I’ve had the pleasure of reading one of David’s stories in this collection.
Here we are in a small town called Biscuit where Charity, a young woman virtually chained to her mother (Faith), ends up a thwarted spinster. In this story, David is doing something immensely difficult, distilling 40+ years of this woman’s life into a single chapter. And for the most part, David’s effort is successful. His black humor marks every page even while we’re watching the train wreck that is this woman’s life. But as with all good stories, Charity is just as much a victim of her own reluctance to fight her mother and change the status quo as she is a victim of her mother’s cruelty. Bravo!
Here’s what I think needs work: Right now, there are a few places where I think the telling vs. showing are flipped. A couple of key scenes need to be fleshed out instead of racing by with exposition. And similarly, when you’ve got a great scene, don’t prep us with how this is going to change her life, include the scene that changed her life, and then tell us that it did indeed change her life. It’s a great scene. Trust us to get it.
I want to see the conflict build between Charity and her mother so that when we get to the end, it’s earned. Right now, we don’t get to see how Faith squelches every romantic interest Charity has ever had until after the “big one.” I need to see these thwarted attempts beforehand and watch Charity turn into a pressure cooker.
And contrary to my esteemed colleagues opinions, I think it would be fantastic for Charity to build a shrine with her romance novels instead of hiding them in the trash. They are her loves and I can’t see how she could bear to part with them.
I do, however, agree with Laurel and Wes that Faith’s sister needs to have more than a walk-on part if she’s going to show up in the story at all. Right now, I’m not sure what purpose she’s supposed to serve. Maybe you know, and you could make it more clear with some type of interaction. And when Charity laughs at her mother’s funeral, I’d like to see other peoples’ reactions to her, so we’re not just in her head when she “loses it.”
I love Biscuit, David, and can’t wait for more of these stories to find their way out into the world. Oh, and I think you should let everyone know that one will be showing up for their reading pleasure soon. When’s the pub date? Cheers!
Yes, props on the forthcoming story pub, David! It will be wonderful to see a Biscuit story in print! After enjoying them within the Dogpatch, it’s nice to know they will have an even wider audience.
On to Charity: As often as we caution each other to avoid excess back story at the front of a story, in this case, the “town bible” effect worked for me. Getting a quick rundown on the goings on of the characters at the opening, I had no idea which character was eventually going to present as the protagonist, but I was so engaged reading about the drinking and carousing and complaining and sneaking off to see the gals on Canal Street, that I didn’t mind waiting for the main character to appear. Within the singular story and certainly within the collection, this, to me, is an instance where the back story guideline is broken with success. Nicely done! Now, that all said, I do wonder if it makes sense to work in a mention of Charity in the opening lines, so that we can remember her when arriving at the launch of her adventures.
Other bits working nicely are how we learn about Charity’s sensitivity as she feels sorry for characters she meets only in a picture and how she vows to be unlike her cruel teacher and to treat her students with kindness. The mother effectively sabotaging all of Charity’s dates is a nice effect as well, and rather funny in the way it’s depicted. It’s also effective that Charity initially accepts her mother’s disposition and her life as the way things are until she’s fed up enough to go and investigate the truth about her own history and disappeared family members.
One of the things I appreciated the most about this story is its rollicking front half, where harsh realities are nonetheless delivered with enough sardonic wit to allow the reader amusement en route to discovering just how grim Charity’s existence is. But I struggled with the dark turn the tone of the story took in the second half. I felt that the plot could be carried out pretty much as it is, but that the altered narrative style midstream had a jarring effect and, for me, somewhat interrupted suspension of disbelief. In the Dogpatch meeting, Wes rightly pointed out that Charity is completely out of touch with reality and that this story carries more sorrow from the onset and throughout than I gleaned on my read. Having a few days to mull over our discussion, I’m inclined to agree with much of Wes’s notes, yet I do feel that the narrative tone changes too much between the front and the back sections. I get that Charity’s change of heart is the collateral damage of her life experiences, but I’m not sure I believe it as it’s currently rendered on the page. Perhaps look back at the triggering lines for her turnabout and see if there’s deep enough exploration of her interior. I feel like I still need a little more in order to fully buy her changed life view.
I was initially baffled by the last scene, in which Charity confronts both a figure and emotions from her past, and presumably her present, at least as far as the emotions go. Rereading, I’m ready to buy that the scene can work, but wonder if slowing the scene down a bit would allow it to resonate more fully. Also, I think we should know the dog’s name in advance of the ending scene vs. learning it at the same time the man does.
I agree with Jilanne that Charity’s delight in the romance novels would be more chaste and emotion-driven rather than physically manifested. As amusing as what happens to the books is, it could also be interesting if they piled up in her house like extra walls.
Despite all the sadness and grimness in this character’s life, this story still makes me laugh and I find a lot of it very funny in an oddball way. All of the Biscuit stories have an offbeat tone I find quite effective and engaging, and this one certainly doesn’t disappoint. Thanks for the return to Biscuit and I already can’t wait for another visit. XO Laurel Leigh
When you name your two main characters Faith and Charity, you’re going to have to expect them to bear more than their fair share of metaphorical weight.
In the case of ‘Charity’s Discovery’ I think your two main characters manage well enough to carry off their rather loaded names. I read an earlier version of this story, and I can say that you’ve improved upon the previous version — by which I mean, this story totally bums me out, but in a good way. As I read it, it is a story about what happens — the misery and tragedy that can’t be avoided — when a person, even a good person like Charity, particularly a good person like Charity, leads a life not based on reality.
After opening with a brief history of Charity’s father, Art Boykin, and his rather artless death, we have a significant — by which I mean ‘signifying much,’ not ‘big in scope’ — scene where a young Charity ignores the pain of life (her classmate, Ed Billick, placing a thumbtack on her desk chair) out of simple charity, which then appears to lead to a life-long pattern of Charity not looking at life as it is but rather how she wishes it to be; a pattern that eventually, inexorably leads the main character to losing all sense of charity and kindness, and also finally leads her to, if not madness, malevolent eccentricity.
This story echoes, in some respects, Joyce’s story ‘The Sisters,’ with the mad priest at the end of the story babbling to himself in the confessional; a story of madness brought on by an inability to see life as it is while at the same time remaining charitable in one’s heart towards others.
So I think a fair question is, what exactly is Charity’s discovery? I think the author intends for that discovery to be that Charity’s mother, Faith, intends for her daughter to remain be a spinster, staying at home and taking care of her all her life. But one could argue that Charity discovers other things as well.
She discovers she has an abiding love — typical of the character — for the escape of romance novels. She discovers, more importantly, that her mother lied about what kind of man her father was, that Charity’s father, Art Boykin, was a drunk and a scoundrel, devoid of love for his wife.
She also discovers that her mother, Faith, has no faith in anything, including, in particular, faith in the existence of love. And she discovers that she has a whole other side to her family living in the next town over, making her, possibly, less alone in life than she might at first appear — and giving this lonely woman another reason to resent her selfish, grasping, faithless mother.
And finally Charity discovers — with her mild, albeit oddly uncontrollable, attraction later in life to her former youthful tormenter, Ed Billick — she discovers an unpredictable and unquenchable hunger within herself.
Call it love, the sex-drive, or simple biology, Charity discovers within herself an unpredictable force, a force which in some ways leads her to her sad state at the end of the story; for by ignoring what her body craves, what she herself craves, and by living a life not based on reality, Charity ends up exactly the kind of person she didn’t want to be: a raving, evil-hearted spinster torturing — like the reviled Gladys Horton, her former teacher and the person who unwittingly set Charity on her chosen career path — her young charges at school.
Good job, David! Long live Biscuit!