What Can We Steal From Lori Ostlund’s “All Boy”?

Title of Work and its Form: “All Boy,” short story
Author: Lori Ostlund
Date of Work: 2009
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The story made its debut in Volume 30, Issue 3 of New England Review.  (One of the best journals out there, of course!)  Richard Russo subsequently selected the story for inclusion in Best American Short Stories 2010.

Bonuses: Cool!  Here’s a video of Ms. Ostlund reading her story. Check out this NPR story about Mr. Russo’s edition of Best American.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Crane Shot Conclusions

Summary:
Harold is an eleven-year-old boy who is very precocious and reminds me of a Wes Anderson character.  The young man loves reading and enjoys “odd” experiences, such as watching his babysitter get her toenails trimmed.  There’s a lot of tension in Harold’s home.  Harold’s mother and father are always fighting and are keeping a lot of information from the boy.  He has divined that his parents no longer have sex (as they must have done at least once) and he causes lots of conflict when he uses the word “fag” at the dinner table and wears a very comfortable sleeping garment that happens to be a very feminine kimono.  Harold’s life changes forever when his father reveals that he’s leaving the home to move in with a male friend.  Harold is left “longing for the dark safety of the closet.”  For Harold, the closet is a literal place of comfort and solitude.

“All Boy” has an interesting structure and an inexorable build.  Ms. Ostlund chose a third-person narrator who is very close to Harold, allowing the reader to understand the events through a childlike perspective.  The story, we eventually learn, takes place in the Autumn of 1976, a very different time than our own.  Back then, boys simply didn’t wear kimonos and using the word “fag” in polite conversation isn’t met with disapproval.  (Instead, it’s treated as a “terrible accusation.”)  Ms. Ostlund establishes very early that the story confronts the issue of sexual secrecy and the tendency to be reluctant when confronting sexual self-identity.

  • Harold’s father doesn’t get mad that the babysitter locked Harold in the closet, but he flips out when he learns that the woman likes to go into his sock drawer.
  • Harold’s father doesn’t like to be touched and even his eleven-year-old knows that he doesn’t have sex with his wife.
  • Harold’s father flips out when his wife makes an innuendo that clearly points to his lack of interest in women.
  • Harold’s father makes a point of meeting the librarian who is kind to Harold.
  • Harold’s father “believed that men should be muscular,” and spends lots of time in a weight room “groaning” in a room filled with pictures of muscle men.

Even I picked up on the subtext after a while!  Harold lives in a world he doesn’t understand, primarily because he’s eleven and doesn’t have friends or anyone else who will explain adult-type things to him.  “All Boy” is about the gradual revealing of intimate secrets.  If the story had been told from the perspective of Harold’s mother, Ms. Ostlund would not have been able to release secrets very slowly.  This point of view can read as though there’s a scrim between writer and reader, but a slight disconnect makes perfect sense in this case.

Ms. Ostlund ends her story in a very popular way that I will now label THE CRANE SHOT.  Think of the end of a film.  Many times, a movie will end with a crane shot; the camera pulls back on the characters, allowing them to melt back into the rest of the world.  I love the 1994 Bridget Fonda film It Can Happen to You.  (You might say I’m quite “fonda” the actress…)  At the end of the film, the protagonists have solved all of their problems and are celebrating their love by flying above Central Park in a hot air balloon.  Ms. Ostlund (and countless other short story writers—including myself) does the same thing in her story, just in a manner that is suitable to prose.

Harold has just been told his father is moving out to live with a male friend.  Harold simply wonders who will protect the home.  From that moment, Harold fears he and his mother will be at risk.  “Crane Shot” endings are often cast in one beautiful sentence, and Ms. Ostlund’s example in “All Boy” is no exception:

The thought of this filled him with terror, and as he stood there in the driveway watching his father leave, Harold found himself longing for the dark safety of the closet: the familiar smells of wet wool and vacuum cleaner dust; the far-off chatter of Mrs. Norman’s television shows; the line of light marking the bottom of the locked door, a line so thin that it made what lay on the other side seem, after all, like nothing.

Striking, right?  Ms. Ostlund’s ending contains most of the elements of a “Crane Shot” conclusion:

  1. A long, poetic sentence
  2. A switch from the dramatic present to glimpse the future
  3. Recall of themes and/or images from the story
  4. An epiphany for the protagonist; an acknowledgement that life has changed forever

What Should We Steal?

  • Inhabit the point of view of an oblivious character to regulate the speed at which you release exposition.  An eleven-year-old certainly can’t be expected to understand everything that is going on around them.  The gradual reveal of truth to such a character mimics the gradual process by which adults learn about each other.
  • Conclude your story with a “Crane Shot.”  Now that you’ve zoomed in on a few of the people in your creative universe, offer a glimpse into their future while making a larger statement about humanity.

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