What Can We Steal From Karl Taro Greenfeld’s “Horned Men”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Horned Men,” short story
Author: Karl Taro Greenfeld (on Twitter @karltaro)
Date of Work: 2012
Where the Work Can Be Found: The piece debuted in Fall 2012′s Issue 95 of ZYZZYVA, a very cool journal.  Elizabeth Strout and Heidi Pitlor subsequently chose the piece for the 2013 edition of Best American Short Stories.

Bonuses:  Here is what Karen Carlson thought of the story.  Here is a piece Mr. Greenfeld wrote for The Atlantic in which he attempts to cope with the amount of homework his daughter is given.  Here is an interview Mr. Greenfeld gave to TIME Magazine.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Social Criticism

The first line of the story has a number of meanings: “Bob was in the dark.”  In a literal sense, Bob is threading coax cable in the dark crawlspace of his new and old home.  Bob also finds himself staring down at his teenage daughter, Becca.  The protagonist had spent years as a mortgage broker, losing his job after the  bubble burst.  Like so many, Bob had left his keys in the extravagant home he shouldn’t have bought; luckily, he was renting out his dead mother’s home.  After Bob kicked out the tenants, he moved his wife and daughter right in.  Becca is old enough to understand the problems Bob helped to cause for countless homeowners and his exiled tenants seem to have put a curse on him, as well.  While in the crawlspace, he found a “small brown clay bust” of a horned man.  There was another in Becca’s room.  The animal kingdom is even against Bob-he is bitten by a giant spider and loses some of the range of movement in his arm.  (If only he could have accessed health care sooner!)  The story ends as Bob dismisses the idea of a curse; he violates his vow by returning to the crawlspace to watch his daughter sleep.

I liked this story a lot.  A number of the stories in the 2013 edition of Best American deal with the aftermath of the 2008 financial collapse; I love that writers are helping us to contextualize and understand what has happened to us and why.  Bob was just a cog at his brokerage firm; he didn’t come up with the terrible loans…it was just his job to sell them.  At one point in the story, Bob testifies at a hearing as to what went on in his firm.  The questions were dry and Bob seems to be operating mechanically as he complies with the attorneys who were questioning him.  Even though he’s just talking about “specific loans and terms” merely recounting “his former pitch, patter, and close,” he’s really talking about the lives that his firm ruined.  The families who lost their homes.  The life savings that were siphoned into the pockets of the firm’s CEO.  Even though he lost his own home, Bob doesn’t really seem to understand the plight of those who were harmed by the collapse of the housing market and the banking system.

One of the great powers of fiction is its ability to help us contextualize our lives and the events that transform society.  Mr. Greenfeld is certainly fulfilling his duty by telling us a specific story about specific characters, but he’s also adding to the body of literature that will help others understand what the financial collapse felt like.  (Another great piece along these lines is Benjamin Percy’s “Writs of Possession.  Read my thoughts about it here.)  What is the balance between being a storyteller and being pedantic?  I think the important decision that Mr. Greenfeld makes is that he leaves all of the analysis up to you.  His narrator could easily have passed judgment on Bob and others like him.  Instead, the author simply presents the situation and allows the reader to make the connections on his or her own.

At the end of the hearing, Bob “shook his head.  He couldn’t remember anything, but he was sorry.  He repeated that as if his apology might make it okay.”  See how Mr. Greenfeld is creating the conditions under which you can be angry instead of TELLING you that you should be angry?  His narrator lights a path; it doesn’t pull you along.

Speaking of narrators, we must all decide whether or not they can see into the future and what the revelations might mean.  Mr. Greenfeld’s narrator, in fact, plays a big role in the end of the story.  Throughout the piece, Bob has spent his crawlspace time staring at his teenage daughter.  Why?  Well, I suppose you can decide for yourself.  Bob resolves to spackle the porthole shut.  Mr. Greenfeld has him head up into the attic with a tub of spackle and a palette knife: “…he slithered along the boards, his [spider-bitten] elbow still sore-it would ache the rest of his days-to the gap above his daughter’s room.”  The scene ends as Bob reassures himself that “this would be the final glimpse.”

After a bit of white space, Mr. Greenfeld gives us four more paragraphs and ends the story with a dismissal of the possibility of a horned man curse.  Then Bob “went back into the house, to the attic, to the crawlspace above his daughter’s room, where he watched her sleep.”

The narrator’s ability to see into the future sets up the big punch at the end of the story.  By mentioning the chronic pain that Bob will feel for the rest of his life, Mr. Greenfeld lulls us into a false sense of security in a way.  For a brief second, we actually believe that Bob will cover up the peephole.  The drama of the story and the pathos of the character, of course, are more meaningful when we are informed that Bob is not the man he thinks he is.

What Should We Steal?

  • Fulfill your duty as a social commentator without forsaking your responsibilities as a storyteller.  Trust your reader to understand the societal comment you’re trying to communicate.
  • Measure the effect of your time traveling narrators.  If you knew that asking out that boyfriend or girlfriend would cause you so much pain, you wouldn’t do it.  Your narrator can make an important difference in the way we understand your characters based upon what they will do in the future.