What Can We Steal From Terri Fields’s Holdup?

Title of Work and its Form: Holdup, novel
Author: Terry Fields
Date of Work: 2007
Where the Work Can Be Found: The book was published by Square Fish (a Macmillan imprint).  You can  purchase the book online or at a local independent bookstore.

Bonuses:  Here is an appearance that Ms. Fields made on the Book Bytes for Kids podcast in which she discusses Holdup.  (She seems like a very kind and cool woman!)  Here is a short essay Ms. Fields wrote for authors who want to get their books to a wider audience.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Structure

This very cool book recounts the points of view of nine people whose lives are forever entwined during a Burger Heaven robbery.  Two of the characters are robbing the place and the rest are employees or customers who deal with the event.  Ms. Fields introduces the reader to a wide range of characters: the type-A young woman who isn’t supposed to be there today, the outsider who just wants to be seen for his personality, an older woman who tries to help a bright young man see that he can improve his life.  In terms of summary, that’s really enough.  Read for yourself to discover all of the twists and turns in the narrative.

Ms. Fields structures the book in an interesting way.  Each of the characters has a say and offers their perspective (and exposition) in their own unique voices.  The type-A young woman evokes empathy with her struggle at being a go-getter while also enjoying life.  The drive-thru master breaks your heart with his belief that he’ll never be good enough to go to college.  The structure (reminiscent of Tom Perrotta’s excellent Election) results in an interesting twist on third and first person prose.  Each of the sections are written in the first person, allowing Ms. Fields to decrease the distance between the character on the reader.  The cumulative effect of all of these first person accounts indicates a third person narrator behind it all.  Who is pulling the strings?  Who (other than Ms. Fields, of course) decides which characters speak and when?  Who decided how much of the narrative would take place before the robbery?  Ms. Fields has her cake and eats it too; all of the passion and conversation of the first person POV with the narrative flexibility of the third person.

This is a book about high schoolers who, we must admit, are pretty much adults.  (Particularly when they commit violent crimes.)  I haven’t finished my Young Adult book-who am I kidding; I likely never will-so I don’t know how much resistance Ms. Fields got from her publisher or from the marketplace for employing violence in the book and hinting toward sex and drugs.  (I found a kind review from School Library Journal that seemed pretty accepting of the book’s themes.)  Ms. Fields is smart enough not to talk down to young people or to pretend that sixteen-, seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds aren’t having sex and getting into trouble.  The book feels real because the characters are drawn with verisimilitude.  I have difficulty enjoying bowdlerized works.

Quick explanation: We get the term “bowdlerized” from Thomas Bowdler, who rewrote Shakespeare to make it more “appropriate” for family audiences.  In the course of doing so, Mr. Bowdler gutted the plays of meaning.  The same principle applies when you watch Goodfellas, one of the best movies ever, on television or on an airplane.  Instead of watching the 146-minute masterpiece depicting gangsters using gangster words, you can watch a fifteen-minute short film about a man named Henry Hill, who worked at an airport and made spaghetti sauce.

See why bowdlerized works lack verisimilitude?  (The appearance of reality in fiction.)  I love that Theresa understands she’s attractive, but refuses to accept being touched by the gross grill guy.  I love that Dylan really seems to have the narcissism of a hardened criminal.  I don’t want to ruin anything, but there is violence in the story…AS THERE SHOULD BE.  It’s a book about a fast-food robbery.  Stuff needs to happen.

What Should We Steal?

  • Employ a third person narrator that really consists of many first person ones.  When you assemble many first-hand accounts, get all of the benefits of one-on-one conversation with the powers of second-hand accounts.
  • Avoid bowdlerizing your own work.  If you’re writing about a gangster, he or she probably must swear and shoot people.  If you’re writing about teenagers, they are going to have sex…or at least they’ll really WANT to.

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