What Can We Steal From Steve Almond’s “Donkey Greedy, Donkey Gets Punched”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Donkey Greedy, Donkey Gets Punched,” short story
Author: Steve Almond
Date of Work: 2009
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story first appeared in Issue 40 of the excellent journal Tin House and was subsequently chosen by Richard Russo for The Best American Short Stories 2010.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Multimedia

Discussion:
If you’re new to literary pursuits, you may not have experienced the utterly strange kind of pleasure that I derived from this story.  I reviewed Issue 40 of Tin House for NewPages and loved Mr. Almond’s story a LOT.  Months and months later, I picked up the 2010 Best American and thought the first story seemed pretty familiar…  The book begins with that story I loved from Tin House!  Did I have anything at all to do with Mr. Almond’s story or the honors it received?  Of course not.  But I did feel that strange pleasure; I read a story I knew was great and important people subsequently agreed with me.  (It’s like when you see a minor league ballplayer you think is great and the guy goes on to a superstar career in the bigs.)

“Donkey Greedy, Donkey Get Punched” is a philosophical fight between Dr. Raymond Oss, a psychoanalyst, and Gary “Card” Sharpe, “enfant terrible of the World Poker Tour.”  Dr. Oss doesn’t tell his new patient that he has a somewhat unhealthy level of interest in poker and a bit too much of the love of gambling that rules Sharpe’s life.  Sharpe has many problems and doesn’t deal with them in a healthy way; he doesn’t want to change.  He loves his life and the excitement he feels from using his intellect and intuition to win money from people.  Their doctor/patient relationship ends with some acrimony.  In the climactic scene, Dr. Oss has relapsed and is again playing poker at Artichoke Joe’s when Sharpe (a superstar in the minds of the bushers at the table) strolls in and sees the Good Doctor.  What happens next?  As they said on Reading Rainbow: “read the book!”  (Dum dum dum dum!)

There’s so much we can steal from the story.  The first thing we should steal was clear to me when I read the story in Tin House, a journal that is particularly attractive and puts a lot of energy into its graphic design.  It can be very difficult to describe a card game.  Or a baseball game.  Or a soccer match.  Well, it’s not that hard to describe a soccer match.  Here’s my extremely American-sounding description of the most recent World Cup final:

The guy kicked it to another guy who kicked it to another guy, but he fell down so the guy from the other team kicked the ball, but then the ball was kicked out of bounds.  So the guy threw it to another guy who kicked it to another guy, but he fell down so the guy from the other team kicked the ball, but then the ball was kicked out of bounds. So the guy threw it to another guy who kicked it to another guy, but he fell down so the guy from the other team kicked the ball, but then the ball was kicked out of bounds. So the guy threw it to another guy who kicked it to another guy, but he fell down so the guy from the other team kicked the ball, but then the ball was kicked out of bounds. So the guy threw it to another guy who kicked it to another guy, but he fell down so the guy from the other team kicked the ball, but then the ball was kicked out of bounds. Time ran out, but the referee added eight more minutes just because.  So the guy threw it to another guy who kicked it to another guy, but he fell down so the guy from the other team kicked the ball, but then the ball was kicked out of bounds. So the guy threw it to another guy who kicked it to another guy, but he fell down so the guy from the other team kicked the ball, but then the ball was kicked out of bounds. Then one of the teams celebrated.

Mr. Almond makes it easy to understand the climactic hand of poker that Dr. Oss and Sharpe play at the end of the story.  How?  He inserted simple graphics into the story, like so:

almond donkeyA written description would likely be less effective.  (Especially if I write it.)

Dr. Oss was dealt the ace of spades and the king of hearts.

There are a number of steps in a hand of hold ‘em…Mr. Almond presents the information in a clear way that just so happens to avoid words.

What else should we steal from Mr. Almond?  He populated his story with a protagonist and an antagonist.  Dr. Oss wants to help Sharpe to attain mental health and to beat Sharpe in a hand of poker.  You better bet that Sharpe tosses down a whole bunch of obstacles to prevent Dr. Oss from achieving those goals.

What Should We Steal?

  • Capitalize upon the advantages of visual media when possible.  Yes, yes.  A picture is worth a thousand words, but you can’t just print out five pictures and staple them together and send them to Tin House.  You can, however, make use of the benefits of visual media when possible.  Instead of describing a bunch of playing cards, for example, you can include images.  There’s an added benefit; folks who play poker will remain in your narrative that much more because they’re seeing the cards in a form to which they’re already accustomed.
  • Equip a story with a clear protagonist and a clear antagonist.  Your main character should have very clear desires and there should be someone who is always throwing obstacles in the poor guy’s way.  Think of a Bond movie.  Bond wants to disable a communications satellite and the bad guy wants to keep using the satellite…and to kill Bond, of course.

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