What Can We Steal from Nathan Deuel’s “Night of the Gun”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Night of the Gun,” creative nonfiction
Author: Nathan Deuel (on Twitter @nathandeuel)
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found: The piece first appeared in Issue 4/5 of the St. Petersburg Review, a very cool journal with an international focus.

Bonuses:  Try not to be blinded by jealousy, but Mr. Deuel lives in Beirut and travels all over the place and writes for a million prestigious publications.  Here‘s a piece of memoir he wrote for Aeon Magazine.  And here‘s a piece that was published online by The Paris Review.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Exposition

Discussion:
Who doesn’t want to visit the Middle East?  The cradle of civilization…the region that produced the 1001 Nights…the food.  Admittedly, there are some concerns with spending time in the region, but if The Twilight Zone taught us anything, it’s that people are the same all over.  Cultural differences may be interesting, but they shouldn’t keep us from understanding others.  Mr. Deuel describes an interesting cross-cultural experience that occurred when he was living in Riyadh.  Mr. Deuel’s landlord, Mohammad, invited him to bring his wife Kelly to see his farm.  No longer able to duck the invitation, the two headed out into the desert on a winter afternoon.  (The average winter temperature in Riyadh is over 70 degrees Fahrenheit.)  Mohammad does his best to be a good host, offering food and telling stories about the land and his family’s connection to it.  In the climax of the piece, Mohammad brandishes an unloaded Spanish pistol, intending to show it to Mr. Deuel’s wife.  Mr. Deuel objects—“She hates guns”—and Mohammad shows her anyway, creating a little bit of tension.  The piece ends on that discordant tone.  Mohammad and the couple still regard each other highly, but they are both recognizing that cultural differences still keep us apart to some extent.

Pretend you’re writing a scene at a family reunion.  You have a big potential problem on your hands.  You need to tell the audience who is who, but family members don’t often give each other a lot of basic exposition.  Think about it—cousins don’t need to ask each other their names or what they do for a living, and so on.  You, the writer, need a way to get exposition across and to do it in an organic fashion.  Mr. Deuel introduces us to Mohammad in a felicitous manner.  He and his wife were (quite reluctantly) on their way into the desert.  Neither his wife nor the reader know much about Mohammad at this point, so Mr. Deuel wrote the following:

Aware that I had no idea how far we needed to go, I fought off a mounting feeling of dread by telling Kelly what I knew of our host.

After Mr. Deuel gives himself a good and logical excuse, he can simply tell the audience whatever he likes about Mohammad.

In this piece, Mr. Deuer is recounting the important parts of an encounter he had during a visit to his landlord’s home.  The piece is only a few pages long; Mr. Deuer consciously zips along to describe whatever moments he feels are most important.  I don’t know how many other people feel this way, but if I were writing this piece, I would feel pressure to put more of the story into actual scene, with dialogue and action and everything.  Instead, Mr. Deuer saves his most detailed scenemaking for the most important part of the narrative: the experience with the titular gun. Mr. Deuer asserts the prose writer’s prerogative, zipping through time with phrases such as “Soon we pulled up to the ruins” and “Back at the house.”

What Should We Steal?

  • Employ felicitous methods to release the exposition your audience needs.  It probably doesn’t make sense for a mother to introduce herself to a son and to describe what her life is like.  But a mother describing herself to a son’s new girlfriend?  That makes much more sense.
  • Fast-forward through the less-critical parts of your narrative.  The audience wants to read about the interesting and the significant, not the conventional and banal.

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