What Can We Steal From Christopher DeWan’s “The Atheist of Dekalb Street”?

Title of Work and its Form: “The Atheist of Dekalb Street,” short story
Author: Christopher DeWan (on Twitter @theurbansherpa)
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: The short story made its debut in Wigleaf, a cool journal of [very] short fiction.  You can find the story here.

Bonuses: Mr. DeWan did an awful lot of writing for his now-defunct blog The Urban SherpaHere is an interview Mr. DeWan did for LitWrap.  “An American Dream” was published in Necessary Fiction.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Description

Discussion:
This short story is told from the first person perspective of a boy who spends time with an old woman who (he believes) is the only atheist in a neighborhood filled with Catholics.  There are rumors that the woman has stigmata, and she does indeed have some sort of wounds on her hands.  The woman seems to be in failing heath.  The boy cares for her and anoints her with tap water (the atheist kind) and comes to the epiphany that something is only holy or special if we believe it is.

Mr. DeWan introduces the atheist’s “stigmata” early in the short story, after making it clear that he lives in a very religious (and very Catholic) community.  When a woman–who also apparently happens not to be a member of the faith and is not even a Protestant–develops wounds in her palms and feet, the narrator can’t help but believe that they are stigmata.  When Mr. DeWan brings such a concept into the story, we have a decision to make.  Is this a piece of magical realism?  Are the stigmata fantastic in some way?  Or are these regular old wounds that have been given weight by the narrator and his religious background?

It’s my impression that Mr. DeWan is working in straight-up realism and that the holes in the woman’s hands got there by conventional means.  The narrator’s description, however, serves as great description.  Mr. DeWan doesn’t need to devote much time to bare description of the stigmata because we already know what they look like based upon what the narrator thinks they are.  The author is making felicitous use of the different levels of understanding possessed by character and reader.  We do this same kind of thing with children.  If a child says they heard a “big boom” outside, we make a leap or two and understand that they mean they heard a thunderclap.  Mr. DeWan’s use of this technique adds to the efficiency of the piece; he gains both characterization and exposition.

Mythologies have had a strong hold on the human imagination for a very long time, and for good reason.  Myths explain the unexplainable and help us orient ourselves with respect to the rest of humanity.  The story ends as the narrator “baptizes” the atheist of Dekalb Street with tap water.  The boy hopes that this action will wash the woman’s soul clean, ushering her into a state of divine blessing.  The baptism means something else in purely secular terms.  The woman is near death and her body is breaking down.  Doesn’t it make perfect sense that the story should end with a young person anointing an elder who is about to pass into that undiscovered country?

This story is imbued with Catholic mythology by virtue of its narrator.  I love the double meaning possessed by the final move in the story.  It makes sense that a young boy will think of baptizing a stranger.  The narrator is not as likely to think of another Catholic sacrament: the anointing of the sick (the last rites). Mr. DeWan builds power and relatability into the story by aligning it with stories that hold powerful sway over so many.

What Should We Steal?

  • Make use of the differences between your protagonist and your reader.  The man or woman holding your book will likely have deeper understanding of the world than that of some of your characters.  Allow your reader to process information on behalf of characters who can’t.
  • Commemorate the growth of your characters with the same sacraments found in mythology.  Fiction is all about characters who reach new levels of understanding and consciousness and who become something new.  Aren’t these aims similar to those of religion?  A young woman is considered an adult after her bat mitzvah.  A Muslim fulfills a lifetime goal by making their way to Mecca for the Hajj.

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