Tuesday, March 11, 2008

SynedoChick’s Review of “Riding the Doghouse” (Best American Short Stories 2007)

FictionAnemic, I had a similar reaction to this story. It seemed like a breath of fresh air--finally, I thought, a story about something other than the problems of the very very rich.

This kid’s childhood—riding cross-country in his father’s rig—is a far cry from the precious upper class New York world of “Pa’s Darling.” But the more I read, the more similar these stories seemed …

Obviously, in both stories, narrators reminisce about somewhat troubled father-child relationships. In both stories, that trouble revolves around generational differences in social class. In Auchincloss’s story, the narrator (or maybe the world in general) has failed to live up to her father’s New York upper class values. In DeVita’s story, the narrator is troubled by his father’s lower class status. Although little is said about the adult narrator’s class status (the frame “story”—in which the adult narrator watches his son sleep—is really pretty thin), we do know that he went to college, distancing himself from his working class origins.

FictionAnemic, I like your analysis of how the narrator passes through these phases—loner, loser, rebel—to achieve maturity (or loss of innocence, depending on how you look at it). The narrator changes as he becomes aware of the class differences between his father and his friend’s father. I thought this was an interesting and poignant theme. The dialogue seemed a little on the nose when the narrator and his father argue, actually saying things like, “Sitting in air conditioning ain’t work.” The emotional subtext of the story was perfectly clear without having the characters spell it out.

I also wondered what Midnight was supposed to represent—and I agree that on some level, he does seem to be harbinger or death. But it is interesting that Midnight appears in the story—and threatens his father’s life—just after the narrator has insulted his father's work. It is fitting that Midnight is another trucker, someone who stalks the narrator’s father on the road, takes pictures of him asleep in his truck. Midnight is innately tied to the father’s working class job. And the father fittingly dies during his son’s first semester in college—the son’s first step out of that working class life.

In Stephen King’s 1981 book Danse Macabre, he talks about a type of horror he calls “economic unease.” I think this story fits into that category. Midnight might represent death, but he also represents the working class life the narrator has escaped. And perhaps what’s made the narrator an insomniac is the fear that he has not escaped that life completely—or the guilt that his class aspirations were a rejection of his father and, in some irrational way, responsible for his death.

1 comment:

Fiction Anemic said...

Interesting, SynedoChick. I like the Marxist reading of the story, but I somewhat disagree...

I don't think the narrator consciously thinks, "Hey, my Dad isn't making as much money as my friend's dad." I think kids always wish their parents were something cooler... my child always asks wouldn't it be great if I worked in a toy store or on a construction site or in a bowling alley. That's nothing to do with money, it's pleasure in the activity.

Second, I don't find anything in the story (the narrator's envy over a new bicycle, bigger house, better clothes, etc.) that indicates his fear or disappointment in being "poor". Besides, if you look at truck driver salaries and correlate it to the type of driver the narrator's father is, they make almost as much as you and I do/would (and I don't think you would call us lower-class).

I just think the narrator's comments and attitudes are rebellion. If the tables were turned and the narrator's father worked in an office, I feel he might complain that so-so's father is a truck driver.

Nonetheless, I can't escape the logic of your reading and assessment. While I might ground my argument in realism, I have no doubt that this interpretation, the economic unease, is what the author is trying to do.