What Can We Steal From Ron Carlson’s “Gray Gumbo”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Gray Gumbo,” short story
Author: Ron Carlson
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story was presented as part of TriQuarterly‘s first online issue, number 144.  You can read the story for free right here.

Bonuses: Everyone should read the wonderful book Ron Carlson Writes a Story.  Why not purchase a copy from the fine folks at Graywolf Press?  Tim Hedges did this interesting interview with Mr. Carlson for Fiction Writers Review.  Hey, did you know that writers don’t simply exist on the page?  Here’s a video clip of Mr. Carlson:

(Isn’t it fun to see the face and hear the voice behind the stories you love?)

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Breaking the Rules

Discussion:
What a great story.  Marcus and Harmon are friends who have decided to do some hunting and fishing.  Only problem is, it’s not fishing season.  After the men cast their flies into the water, they spot Deputy Kenneth Carbon from Fish and Game.  Marcus and Harmon realize they are poaching and Deputy Carbon may not look so favorably on their crime.  Then they realize that Deputy Carbon is doing some poaching of his own–he’s making time with Theodora Elt, the mayor’s fiancée.  How does the story end?  Read it for yourself!

I’ve been a Ron Carlson fan for some time, ever since a friend lent me a copy of his collection A Kind of Flying.  I geeked out a while later, when I went to the One Story table at AWP and saw that the 100th issue of the journal was a Ron Carlson story.  Then the nice woman who sold me the chapbook asked me if I didn’t want to have Mr. Carlson sign it…he was standing a few feet away.  This story is a good representation of what I love about Mr. Carlson’s work.  He’s breaking a few rules, but those violations somehow only make the work better.  The first three paragraphs seem like a bit of a throat clearing.  Mr. Carlson offers nearly a page of beautiful description that is seemingly disconnected from the narrative.  Here’s a taste:

The clay flat at Locomotive Springs on the desolate northern tip of the Great Salt Lake is made of gray gumbo, a clay in which only dog sage will grow, and bitter-leaved weed, which is a dun green and ugly and which no animal can eat.

For a little while, I wondered why Mr. Carlson waited to get into the narrative proper: “Marcus and I had driven out…”  I loved the description of the way that the gray gumbo “turns to a gray grease that is a remarkable element in its similarity to lard.”  That stuff was beautiful, but it seemed irrelevant.  Could Mr. Carlson have been letting me down?

Nope.  The titular pasty substance is responsible for the ending of the story.  Marcus and Harmon are trying to elude Deputy Kenneth Carbon and the grease facilitates the escape.  Lo and behold, the men have a great story to tell after the Fish and Game truck gets mired in the slop.  Here’s the difference between a great writer such as Mr. Carlson and an inferior writer such as myself: I would have started with the fourth paragraph and would have lost the beautiful description and foreshadowing.

I was also wondering when the narrative was going to “kick in.”  The characters were enjoying nature and wildlife for a page or two.  Was Mr. Carlson going to add some tension to an otherwise placid scene?  Of course.  Mr. Carlson introduced the idea that they were poaching.  Now, poaching isn’t as serious a crime as it was in medieval England, but no one wants to be reprimanded by a game warden.  Further, such a violation could prevent Marcus and Harmon from getting fish and game licenses in the future.  Tension!  Some of this is personal taste, I suppose, but I tend to prefer stories that center upon a tangible conflict of some kind.  A big conflict with big stakes that have meaningful consequences for the characters.

I think my favorite thing about this story is the way in which every element is thematically linked.  Best of all, Mr. Carlson doesn’t achieve this unity with a heavy hand.  In the world of the story, two men are poaching (taking sustenance that belongs to someone else)…then they see the game warden poaching the mayor’s bride to be (taking sustenance that “belongs” to someone else).  The gray gumbo that makes it hard to reach their fishing hole is the same gray gumbo that turns this expedition into a story the two men will tell forever.  The men themselves are united; they know each other very well and both had a crush on Theodora Elt and both enjoy the same beer and both speak in the same playful tone once they’re on the run.  Everything works in the story.  This kind of unity is not easy to achieve; I think it’s the kind of thing that will only happen once you’ve written a lot of stories and thought about the work of others quite a bit.

What Should We Steal?

  • Ensure that everything in your story works to serve the narrative, even if the elements only do so in retrospect.  That beautiful three-paragraph description at the start of your short should relate to the narrative.
  • Avoid going too long without some kind of organic tension in your story.  We’re willing to hang with you for a while, but we need some conflict on which to hang our attention at some point.
  • Create thematic unity in your work.  What a wonderful gift when it turns out that everything in your piece is working toward the benefit of the whole.

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