GWS BASS Flashback: Dan Chaon’s “Fitting Ends”

Friends, there are about eleventy million great writers out there and eleventy trillion great stories.  There’s simply no way to keep up with every worthwhile work that comes out.  Still, we must have a working knowledge of what came before us if we’re going to break new literary ground.  That’s why I’m dipping into my local library’s near-complete collection of Best American Short Stories to take the pulse of a different time and place.  So hop in the time machine with me because we’re going all the way back to…

1996.  Michael Jackson was only on his third nose.  Carson Daly had exactly the same number of talents as he has now.  Derek Jeter was on his way to winning the AL Rookie of the Year.

More importantly for our purposes, Issue 94 of TriQuarterly was hot from the presses, marking the first publication of Dan Chaon‘s “Fitting Ends.”  If you don’t have a copy of TriQuarterly 94 hanging around, don’t worry.  The story was reprinted in Best American Short Stories 1996, as well as Mr. Chaon’s first collection.  The author is, of course, one of our many big-time Literary Lions; he studied writing at Northwestern and Syracuse and currently teaches at Oberlin College.  I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Chaon, but he seems like a good person; check out this interview he gave to The Believer.

“Fitting Ends” is a melancholy story about a narrator whose older brother died when he was fourteen.  The brother was hit by a train while under the influence of alcohol.  Del died alone, so the family has spent the subsequent decades wondering what really happened and why.  Mr. Chaon’s narrator maneuvers gracefully between past and present.  We learn that Del’s death has become a form of retroactive evidence to support the claims of a ghost on the same tracks where he died.  While Del had some adolescent problems and acted out, Del was also a very sensitive kid and even saved the narrator’s life.  In the dramatic present, the narrator attempts to talk to his parents about Del’s death (and what really happened on the grain elevator), but the narrator seems to learn that these deep, dark truths sometimes remain that way because they can hurt more than they can help and that they may not matter in the end.

I love the way Mr. Chaon begins the story.  A lesser writer (such as myself) may have tried to jumpstart the narrative by making more immediate use of the story’s BIG EVENT: Del’s death on the train tracks.  Instead, Mr. Chaon deals with this inciting incident more obliquely:

There is a story about my brother Del that appears in a book called More True Tales of the Weird and Supernatural.  The piece on Del is about three pages long, full of exclamation points and supposedly eerie descriptions.  It is based on what the writer calls “true facts.”

Why is this great?  There are a few reasons.  First of all, I remember those TIME/LIFE books to which the author is referring.  Those commercials were incredibly creepy and were on TV about ninety times a day; the reference is probably one that the reader “got” in 1996 and is still meaningful to us today, even if they don’t know about the book series.  Here’s one of the commercials.  Watch it and try not to be creeped out:

“Fitting Ends” is deep and resonant, but it isn’t the most ebullient and happy story ever written.  If Mr. Chaon had begun with, “My brother Del was hit and killed by a train when I was fourteen…,” then the story may bum us out more than is necessary.  Mr. Chaon manages to ease us into the pathos gently, allowing us to feel the eventual dull ache that the narrator probably feels with Del dead for over a decade.  Further, this is a story about the manner by which people in a family learn to understand each other.  (Or try to do so.)  Mr. Chaon contrasts this intimacy by presenting us with the unlearned sensationalism of the outsider.

I also love the choice Mr. Chaon made with respect to the age of the narrator.  The guy always loved Del, that much is clear.  But the narrator now has a wife and a child of his own.  He’s had many years to try and understand what happened.  Mr. Chaon also allows us to see the narrator’s shame when he describes how, as a young adult, he used his brother’s story as a way to get girls.  The point is that the narrator would not have been able to confront the family’s “Del issue” without so much time for their thoughts and feelings to percolate.

There’s a particularly sweet moment approximately 60% into the story.  The reader knows a lot of the facts about Del’s death and has met his parents in the dramatic present.  The narrator has made it clear that the story is, to some extent, about his desire to join his family in a deeper understanding of the young man’s death.  We’ve learned about the family’s relationship with violence and the lies that flew between the sons and the father.  Yes, Mr. Chaon could have given the narrator and the audience what they think they want: a long, drawn-out scene in which everyone reaches catharsis.

Mr. Chaon doesn’t disappoint us with this kind of easy answer.  At one point, the narrator is visiting his family and he really wants to tell his father a secret.  He thinks about his own son and is “chilled” by the way a father’s love can transform and “turn in on itself.”  Mr. Chaon writes:

We looked at each other, my father and I.  “What are you thinking?”  I said softly, but he just shook his head.

The author makes the brave choice to leave words unspoken and emotions unshared.  And look at the word he uses in the dialogue tag: “said” instead of “asked.”  The narrator’s question doesn’t receive an answer because there really isn’t a satisfactory one out there.

What Should We Steal?

  • Ease the reader into the inciting incident.  Sometimes you need a whiz-bang open.  Other times, you should let the reader stew in the juices of your conflict.
  • Set your story in the time that is right for the narrator.  People need time to reflect on big events before they can comment meaningfully…your characters are no different.
  • Allow a quiet moment of discord to replace what could be a moment of epiphany. Stories should be like life; we don’t always get the answers we want.  (Or the ones we need.)

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