What Can We Steal From Matt Carmichael’s “Buckle Up”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Buckle Up,” short story
Author:  Matt Carmichael (on Twitter @mttcarmichael)
Date of Work: 2014
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story debuted in the September issue of Bartleby Snopes.  You can read the story here.

Bonuses:  Here is a story Mr. Carmichael published in The Adirondack Review.  The gentleman has also done great work as the managing editor of TriQuarterly, a great journal.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Settings

Discussion:
This is the story of the lengths to which a parent (a father, in this case) will go to ensure their kids have happy Holidays and believe in the magic the world can possess.  The first person narrator of the story has an important and morbid job: he tallies the traffic deaths for the year so the number can be displayed on the Highway Department’s roadside signs.  The gentleman seems to enjoy his work, as work goes, and he is looking forward to the office holiday party.  Bren, the narrator’s coworker, dresses up like Santa Claus to impress his son Tony, for whom this may be the last believing-in-Santa Christmas.  Saint Nick eats cookies, right?  Well, Santa Bren is offered some treats that contains peanut butter.  Bren is allergic, but eats a cookie anyway, so as not to disappoint Tony.  The ensuing heart attack puts a damper on the party, but the narrator concludes the story by pointing out that he lost the office traffic death pool and that Bren should be fine soon, as “heart attacks heal quick.”

What a morbidly funny story!  Mr. Carmichael ensures that the piece’s structure is quite solid.  The first aspect of the story on which I’d like to focus is that “Buckle Up” takes place in a workplace.  The great Lee K. Abbott once pointed out to those of us who were in his class that there aren’t as many “work” stories as you might think there would be.  After all, people spend more than a third of their lives at or on their way to work.  Why wouldn’t we have a higher proportion of stories in those settings?  Well, Mr. Carmichael makes the setting of the story seem as simultaneously dreary and pregnant with drama as you might expect from your own work experiences.

Let’s play advocatus diaboli for a moment.  What if Mr. Carmichael made the wrong choice; what if he should have told another of the narrator’s stories?  One that was more his own?  The narrator certainly has his own life going on; a decent job, he likes Mountain Dew, he can string together fun sentences…why not send him on his own adventure instead of forcing him to describe what is probably Bren’s story?  Well, Mr. Carmichael can always write more stories about the guy if he wants to do so.  Further, the narrator seemed to be to be fairly passive and maybe even adrift in his own life, anyway.  Why not let that kind of person tell the kind of story with which he’s more comfortable?

Because the author adheres strongly to “traditional” story structure, there’s a defined climax of the story: Poor Santa Bren has eaten a whole peanut butter cookie and is having a bad reaction and a heart attack.  Then:

“Ho, ho, ho,” says Bren. He’s gasping for air. “This Christmas, Santa wants an epinephrine pen.”

He stands up and then keels over onto the floor. Francis yells, “buckle up, people, this is the real deal” and calls 9-1-1. Bren’s wife runs to his desk and ravages through his drawers. She says she thinks he keeps one of those pens at work.

What is Mr. Carmichael doing with the climax of his story?  Why, he has set up a comic setpiece!  Shakespeare did it, giving Will Kempe the fun and funny role of Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing.  You’ll find the same principle in a ton of comedy films.

John Belushi has less screen time in Animal House than you would have thought.  Ramis, Kenney, Miller and Landis, however, are smart enough to let Belushi dominate the moments of BIG comedy in the film.  For example:

The 40-Year-Old Virgin is a comparatively quiet comedy film…until Steve Carell’s character is given a big comic setpiece:

Mel Brooks allows the whole narrative of Spaceballs to percolate until the big climax of the film, as all of the characters are trying to escape from the Mega Maid.  With all of that storytelling pipe laid, the fantastic Mr. Brooks can let the physical comedy fly:

I guess what I’m saying is that I admire that Mr. Carmichael put a physical comedy setpiece into his short story; that’s not something you see every day.  (But maybe it should be!)  We chuckle as we finish “Buckle Up,” imagining Santa Bren gripping his itchy neck and flailing about as his wife tries to pull back his red pants to expose enough skin for the injection he needs.

What Should We Steal?

  • Set a story or poem at work.  Work may not be your favorite place, but the situations you experience there are pretty universal and audience-friendly.
  • Cast a comic setpiece in prose.  Why can’t a short story be as funny as a Saturday Night Live sketch?

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