What Can We Steal From Michael P. Kardos’s “Maximum Security”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Maximum Security,” short story
Author: Michael P. Kardos (on Twitter @michael_kardos)
Date of Work: 2008
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The story debuted in the Winter 2008 issue of the Southern Review.  “Maximum Security” appears in Mr. Kardos’s 2011 story collection, One Last Good Time.  The folks at Press 53 are pretty cool.  Why not buy the book from them?  The story is also available through the EBSCO database.  If you don’t know how those work, your local librarian will be more than pleased to show you.

Bonuses: Here is an interview Mr. Kardos did about his novel, The Three-Day AffairHere are some very interesting blog posts Mr. Kardos made at The Missouri ReviewHere is a short story Mr. Kardos placed with Blackbird in 2007.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Structure

Discussion:
What a great story.  Brandon is the first person narrator, a young man who begins by telling the reader about his piano teacher, Rudyard Cross.  The gentleman plays the organ and the music calms Brandon’s father, a man still getting over the death of his wife.  Cross is also a little flamboyant.  He enjoys life and does so with flair.  When Brandon begins mimicking some of Cross’s mannerisms—as teenagers sometimes do—his father gets quite upset and cancels Brandon’s lessons.  Brandon’s friend Danny joins in, pointing out that people are making fun of him for acting in a stereotypically homosexual manner.  The bulk of the narrative recounts the time Brandon goes to a real, honest-to-goodness teenager party.  He pays his three dollars for the keg and drinks a couple beers.  Amanda Van Sickle kisses him without first obtaining permission to do so; the experience embarrasses and confuses him.  The beer starts to get to Brandon and he loosens up a little around people he has never spent time with outside of school.  He even steals some beer from a liquor store, which he drinks with some of the kids he thinks are “cool.”  Brandon kisses Danny without first obtaining permission to do so and Danny punches him in the gut.  Seeking solace, Brandon spends the night in the care of the parents whose house was used for the party.  The next morning, Brandon is afraid of what his father will do to him; the story ends on a beautiful note, as Brandon disassociates and imagines safety and the last time he felt whole.

The first thing we must do is examine the structure Mr. Kardos employed for this story.  “Maximum Security” features two parts:

  1. The background about Brandon and his father and their living situation, the information about Rudyard Cross.  Brandon is picking up some mannerisms from Cross; his father and friends think he might be gay.
  2. The night of the party.  Nonconsensual kisses, stealing beer and vomiting at a stranger’s house.  The morning after, when Brandon is picked up.

We certainly need the first part to understand the second, but look at the number of pages each part occupies.  The story occupies, give or take, 15 pages in the Southern Review.  The story is split right down the middle; 7.5 pages for “part one” and 7.5 pages for “part two.”   Mr. Kardos ensures that sufficient emphasis is placed on the night of the party; this is the dramatic present and this is the event that allows all of the issues of part one to interact, changing Brandon’s life.  The story would not have the same impact if the party only lasted for three pages; Mr. Kardos plants the seeds and allows the flowers to blossom.

Mr. Kardos makes a very cool choice in the story.  His narrator is somewhat sheltered.  He didn’t have a curfew because it was unnecessary.  Poor Brandon doesn’t have any “cool” friends and doesn’t hang out anywhere.  When he gets in the car with Danny and two other boys, he is impressed by their jackets.  Letterman jackets are a powerful symbol in high school, aren’t they?  As a music-type nerd, I certainly didn’t have one.  The guys who did had far better lives than me; they talked to girls…and the girls even talked back!  Brandon is certainly in the same kind of boat.  He’s a little “artsier” than most guys and isn’t successful at any of the endeavors that usually indicate social success.  It’s perfectly natural that he would attribute some kind of power to the jackets.

Then Mr. Kardos does something beautiful.  Brandon has stolen the beer and is trying to endear himself to people who aren’t quite in his social circle.  Here’s Brandon making small talk:

We weren’t all friends, and nobody really knew what to say.  At one point I asked Darius and Nick what sport they played, and they asked what I meant, and I said the jackets, and then they looked down at the ground, and Nick said trombone, and Darius said clarinet.

Mr. Kardos does two very important things with these two sentences.  He depicts Brandon’s discomfort in making conversation and he subverts Brandon’s understanding of the characters. (In addition to the reader’s understanding of them.)  EVERY teen feels as though they’re on the outside looking in.  The people we think are having the best life ever usually aren’t.  The beautiful and kind cheerleader has problems at home; the quarterback just lost his younger brother.  (You’ve seen The Breakfast Club, right?)  Mr. Kardos gracefully makes his minor characters very vivid, even in a fifteen-page short story.

Danny tells Brandon that his new mannerisms are making him sound “like a real fag” at school.  Do many of us recoil from these unpleasant slurs?  Of course.  Should we use these words in a personal manner with people who may be offended by their use?  Probably not.  Writers and other creative people, however, are striving toward verisimilitude: the appearance of reality in fiction.  In the time period in which Mr. Kardos’s story takes place, teenage boys used the word “fag” with each other.  (And many, I’m guessing, still do.)

Imagine that Mr. Kardos had Danny say, “Why are you acting like such a young man who doesn’t conform to traditional gender representations in speech and behavior…not that there’s anything wrong with that?”  The line would not ring true and wouldn’t mean anything.  If you’re writing about Jackie Robinson, you must acknowledge that the despicable people didn’t heckle him with the term “African American.”  The Phelps family and their Westboro Baptist Church don’t say that “Americans who happen to be homosexual” are responsible for natural disasters.  I am sure that other folks will disagree, but I believe that it is disrespectful to your audience to pull punches.  Mr. Kardos respects his reader; he knows they understand that HE is not saying something horrible.  His character uses the naughty term.  Mr. Kardos has faith that his reader will get that the story is pro-gay and anti-jerk.  Further, if you turn a “naughty” word into an asterisk salad, you’re doing a disservice to the “victim” you’re trying to protect.

Several months ago, I tuned into NPR—I think it was Diane Rehm—to hear a discussion about the pernicious “A word.”  Unfortunately, I was a few moments late; I never found out which “A word” they were talking about.  I love NPR, but they were treating me like a child that day.

What Should We Steal?

  • Count the number of pages you devote to different sections in your work and devote the appropriate page space to each.  The most important parts of your work deserve the most page space.
  • Employ powerful details to fill out your supporting characters.  Just one or two details can go a long way, particularly if they are the right ones.
  • Use unpleasant words in the correct manner.  Your reader will understand your intent and the experience will be one of mutual respect.

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