What Can We Steal From Thomas Kearnes’s “Get Down with the Sickness”?
Title of Work and its Form: “Get Down with the Sickness,” short story
Author: Thomas Kearnes
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story appears in the April 2013 issue of Word Riot, one of the earliest and coolest online journals. You can find the story here.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Dialogue
Inciting incident: First-person narrator Max is diagnosed with HIV. As he puts it, “I’d finally bent over for the wrong bastard.” Max tells his sister the news and dreads telling his parents. The gentleman is a fun character, a photographer, and is not as professionally successful as he would like to be. (At the very least, he has his artistic integrity.) Max still relies on his increasingly frustrated parents; there’s an entertaining scene in which his mother takes him shopping at Wal-Mart. The climax of the story occurs when Max tells his parents that he’s HIV-positive. The denouement is the aftermath of the reveal. The parents are devastated and disappointed; Max is checking out a hot waiter. (Can you tell from my summary that the story is structurally sound?)
Mr. Kearnes uses dialogue very well in the piece. Max is established very clearly early on in the story. He’s a little eccentric and a lot of fun, even if he’s not exactly placed himself in the best position in life. The situation is also established quickly. We have a ne’er-do-well character in a doctor’s office who is suffering from thrush. These elements, when combined, don’t exactly cry out for exceedingly dense dialogue, so Mr. Kearnes doesn’t give us that. He offers lines that are spoken trippingly on the tongue. Here’s an example:
“Thrush is typically found only in infants and the elderly,” he said. He paused so long, I thought he’d forgotten what he wished to say. “There’s one other classification of patients who develop this disease…”
“And they are?”
“Those with compromised immune systems.”
I swallowed, and endeavored to prune all emotion from my voice. “I have AIDS,” I said.
“No, that’s a common misconception. You’re merely HIV positive. You’ve contracted the virus that one day leads to AIDS.”
“Yes, one day.”
See? Light and easy, right? (Even in light of the subject matter.) The breezy dialogue helps Mr. Kearnes communicate a loose tone, both in the story and in Max’s consciousness. Compare the dialogue in “Get Down with the Sickness” to some dialogue from all-time great John Irving. Here’s an excerpt from an excerpt of In One Person.
I’d met her at thirteen; at this intimidating moment, I was fifteen, but given the invasiveness of Miss Frost’s long, lingering stare, it felt like a two-year penetrating look to me. Finally she said, in regard to my wanting to read Great Expectations again, “You’ve already read this one, William.”
“Yes, I loved it,” I told her—this in lieu of blurting out, as I almost did, that I loved her. She was austerely formal—the first person to unfailingly address me as William. I was always called Bill, or Billy, by my family and friends.
I wanted to see Miss Frost wearing only her bra, which (in my interfering aunt’s view) offered insufficient restraint. Yet, in lieu of blurting out such an indiscretion as that, I said: “I want to reread Great Expectations.” (Not a word about my premonition that Miss Frost had made an impression on me that would be no less devastating than the one that Estella makes on poor Pip.)
So soon?” Miss Frost asked. “You read Great Expectations only a month ago!”
“I can’t wait to reread it,” I said.
“There are a lot of books by Charles Dickens,” Miss Frost told me. “You should try a different one, William.”
“Oh, I will,” I assured her, “but first I want to reread this one.”
Miss Frost’s second reference to me as William had given me an instant erection—though, at fifteen, I had a small penis and a laughably disappointing hard-on. (Suffice it to say, Miss Frost was in no danger of noticing that I had an erection.)
See the difference? Mr. Irving creates a totally different tone with all of the extra “stuff” in the dialogue.
Another reason I enjoyed the story is that Mr. Kearnes deals with illness (in this case, HIV/AIDS) in a somewhat unusual way. Now, HIV/AIDS is no laughing matter. But it’s a disease that affects people, and people react to things in all kinds of crazy ways. An HIV/AIDS narrative doesn’t always have to be a depressing Philadelphia-type narrative. In fact, Mr. Kearnes would not be true to Max if this story were that way. No, Max is not a very serious man, at least on the surface, so it’s fitting that he is making jokes about his illness and the way he became infected. He’s also extremely optimistic about his long-term prospects: “The only reason HIV developed into full-blown AIDS is if you couldn’t afford your meds. I lived in America, not Ethiopia. I may have greatly inconvenienced Axel, but I hadn’t killed him—just like the bastard who infected me hadn’t killed me.”
Mr. Kearnes’s approach is successful because he considers the depth and breadth of the issue. (In the confines of the story length he has chosen, of course.) One reason I couldn’t quite love the film Forgetting Sarah Marshall is because the Russell Brand character reveals that he has herpes halfway through the movie. If you chart who has had sex with whom, the affliction (a very serious one) is a dire threat to nearly every character in the film. But no one brings it up again. Huh? In this story, Mr. Kearnes makes sure that Max thinks about the safety of the men he sleeps with and wonder who infected him and so on. We may not like Max’s thoughts as people, but we like knowing what the character is thinking. When you drop a “bomb” in a story, you must deal with the expected effects.
What Should We Steal?
- Match the sprightliness of your dialogue to that of your characters and plot. A carefree character may best be quoted in light and airy ways. Darker, more complex characters may require you to explain more and unspool the dialogue in a manner that requires more effort from the reader.
- Address the reader’s expected concerns about the elements of your work. If your character is divorced and has children, the reader will naturally wonder about how the children are taking it. A hotshot pilot crashes a plane while inebriated? The audience will want to know what role drugs and alcohol played in the crash and how bad the pilot’s problem is and if he will be treated and if the treatment will be effected and why the pilot drinks too much in the first place and so on.