What Can We Steal From Ron Rash’s “Speckle Trout”?

Title of Work and its Form: ”Speckle Trout,” short story
Author: Ron Rash
Date of Work: 2003
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story made its auspicious debut in the Spring 2003 issue of The Kenyon Review, one of the best journals around.  As of this writing, it seems that JSTOR is offering free access to the story here.  Take advantage!  The story won a well-deserved O. Henry Award in 2005 and was reprinted in that year’s anthology.

Bonuses:  Here is a poem Mr. Rash wrote that is titled “Speckled Trout.”  Here is Mr. Rash’s biography at the Poetry Foundation web site.  Here is a Daily Beast article in which Mr. Rash tells you how he writes.  (Sadly, sipping tea while composing doesn’t get you an instant O. Henry Award.)

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Structure

First line: “Lanny came upon the pot plants while fishing Caney Creek.”  The teenager was minding his own business and trying to catch some speckle trout on a beautiful day.  Then he saw the massive pot garden.  “He rubbed a pot leaf between his finger and thumb, and it felt like money to him,” so he stole five plants.  Lanny sells them to a dealer, then has a beer and propositions a woman…he’s going through adolescence in overdrive.  Lanny goes back to the pot farm and steals more plants.  Everything works out.  Lanny goes back a third time…and things don’t really work out.

So I first read this story in a Lee K. Abbott class at Ohio State and it knocked me out.  It still knocks me out.  Mr. Rash is fulfilling the most important of the writer’s responsibilities; when you read the story, you can sense him twirling a chair around and saying, “Have I got a story for you…”  I won’t name any titles, but I can tell when I read some stories that the author has other things on his or her mind.  I guess I just mean that I enjoy a lot of stories in which the author intends to dazzle you with language or to teach you about another culture…but my greatest joys as a reader come from folks including (but not limited to) Joyce Carol Oates or Tom Perrotta or Harlan Ellison or Ron Carlson or Erin McGraw or Ben Fountain.  When I read a story by one of these kinds of writers, I feel as though they’re telling me, very politely, to sit down and to shut up because they have a life-changing yarn to tell me.

Okay, let’s look at the basic structure of the story:

  1. Lanny goes fishing and finds a pot farm.  He takes some.
  2. Lanny goes and steals more pot.
  3. Lanny goes to steal more pot and his leg is caught in a bear trap.  The awesomely named Linwood Toomey’s going to kill Lanny.

What do you notice?  Mr. Rash adheres to the Rule of Threes.  He’s also making use of Freytag’s Pyramid.  Think about the amount of pot Lanny steals (or intends to steal).  It keeps getting bigger.  I’m guessing Mr. Rash didn’t sit down and plot these elements on a chart.  He knows instinctively that three is the right number of trips for Lanny to take to the pot farm and that Lanny’s ambition will grow…until it results in his untimely demise.  These are the natural rhythms of our lives and they just feel right when they are represented faithfully in fiction.

Look at the white-knuckle final two pages of the story.  Poor Lanny has his leg in the bear trap.  Linwood Toomey’s getting ready to “do what needs to be done.”  Mr. Rash uses the word “word” or “words” eight times:

  • “Lanny liked the way Linwood Toomey spoke.  The words were soothing…”
  • “Linwood Toomey’s words had started to blur…”
  • “what he did understand was Linwood Toomey’s words weren’t said…”
  • “to do so would mean having several sentences of words to pull apart from one another…”
  • “He tried to think of a small string of words he might untangle.”
  • “Lanny thought of something he could say in just a few words.”
  • “It seemed to him that Linwood Toomey’s words had soothed…”
  • “Linwood Toomey said something else but each word was like a balloon…”

Mr. Rash leaves the details of the ending (and Lanny’s ending) up to the reader.  Why is it okay that Mr. Rash didn’t include a five-page Quentin Tarantino-esque torture scene?  He didn’t need to.  The repetition of “words” puts so much emphasis on what Toomey says that you know what will happen.  Toomey’s dialogue is calm and cold and unnerving.  The repetition also facilitates the last paragraph of the story.  Lanny experiences the story through speech and silence and his memories of the titular fish.

Mr. Rash’s very cool first line also names the inciting incident of the story.  From there, Mr. Rash’s third person limited narrator describes Lanny’s life and provides all of the necessary exposition.  On the third page of the story, Lanny reaches “where the creek forked” and finds the pot plans.  This distribution of exposition is very elegant.  Why?  Mr. Rash gives us the promise of an inciting incident and pays it off very quickly in a manner that is connected to the events of the first three pages.

Sometimes, writers (including myself) have the inclination to begin a story with a big block of exposition before getting into the narrative.  Now, there are a zillion great stories that begin this way, but such a construction can be problematic.  Here’s one I’m making up:

Bob Johnson was a baker.  He woke at three in the morning-every morning-so he could drag himself to the bakery early enough to sift, mix, shape, proof and bake everything his customers needed.  The divorce took a lot out of him, but the job was keeping him sane.  The early hours tired him out and prevented him from thinking about Diane and what she had said to him the day she left.

What if I begin in the dramatic present?

Bob Johnson, recent divorcee, squeezed the butt of the gun to make sure it was still in his shoulder holster.  He entered the bakery for the last time, anticipating the sweetness of Diane’s confession.

See how the latter example is more compelling?  Instead of wading through the who, what, when, where and why, we’re jazzed; Bob Johnson’s entering the bakery with the intention of shooting SOMEONE.  What’s going to happen?

What Should We Steal?

  • Ensure that the structure of your piece reflects the structure of our lives.  Childhood and adolescence are each a series of increasingly big and meaningful events.  (The apex seems to be the birth of a child…it’s all downhill after that.)  Allow your story to mimic the natural rhythms of our lives.
  • Employ repetition to train your reader.  By repeatedly mentioning “words,” the reader is trained to focus on dialogue.
  • Bind your opening exposition to the narrative with hoops of steel.  The reader shouldn’t have to wait for your “story” to start several pages into your story.

What Can We Steal From Ron Rash’s “The Ascent”?

Title of Work and its Form: “The Ascent,” short story
Author: Ron Rash
Date of Work: 2009
Where the Work Can Be Found: “The Ascent” first appeared in the Issue 39 of the journal Tin House (Spring 2009).  The story was subsequently chosen for the 2010 issue of The Best American Short Stories.  You can also read the story in Burning Bright, a 2011 collection of stories written by Mr. Rash.  Cool.  Here’s an interview with Mr. Rash!

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Voice

Jared is a normal fifth grader.  He likes a girl named Lyndee Starnes and enjoys long walks in the woods.  Jared lives within hiking distance of a crashed plane that hasn’t yet been found by the authorities.  Well, Jared finds the plane during one of his hikes.  He opens up the door and plucks a diamond ring from the finger of the dead woman inside the plane.  After a couple hours of fantasizing about what Lyndee will say upon receiving the ring, Jared’s parents take the ring to “see if it’s real.”  Well, Jared’s parents are drug addicts.  Jared’s dad tells him an obvious lie: the diamond ring—if you can believe it—was reported stolen by a woman, but here’s a chipped-up bicycle for Christmas, champ!  Jared knows the family needs money, so he steals more goodies from the plane.  After Mom and Dead head out for more drugs, Jared makes a third trip to the airplane as a blizzard rolls in.  The ending, which I don’t want to reveal, is beautiful and fitting.

How do you access the thoughts of a fifth grader?  I suppose many parents would tell you that it’s easier than figuring out what the heck a tenth-grader is thinking.  Mr. Rash places his third-person narrator pretty close to the consciousness of his protagonist.  Jared’s parents are always doing drugs, but it would be a mistake if Mr. Rash allowed the kid to grasp everything.  For example:

As soon as he came into the front room, Jared could tell his parents hadn’t been to bed.  The first was still going, kindling piled around the hearth.  His mother sat where she’d been last night, wearing the same clothes.  She was tearing pages out of a magazine one at a time, using scissors to make rages stars she stuck on the walls with tape.  His father sat beside her, watching intently.
The glass pipe lay on the coffee table beside four baggies, two with powder still in them.  There’d never been more than one before.

A fifth grader probably isn’t going to totally understand all of the slang names for the narcotic in question.  He will, however, know that Mom and Dad usually don’t leave so many baggies out.  Jared doesn’t know EXACTLY what is wrong with his Mom, but he does grasp the effects of the powder.

The simplicity of most of the sentences also reflects the fifth-grade understanding of Mr. Rash’s narrator.  Many of them are short and declarative.  Mr. Rash, however, certainly knows his way around a poetic turn of phrase.  The last sentence of the story is five lines long and a poem unto itself.  The contrast is somewhat shocking to the reader; Mr. Rash has shared seven or eight pages of one kind of sentences with the reader and then presents them with one that is completely different.

What Should We Steal?

  • Match your sentences to your character’s level of understanding.  The average kid simply can’t understand the world in as complicated manner as the average adult.  The narrator must, therefore, report in a way that does seem natural for a child, allowing the reader to draw conclusions.
  • Employ contrast to maximize the effect of an idea.  I don’t know about you, but I’d be pretty shocked if James Taylor grabbed a baseball bat and bashed out my windshield if I cut him off in a parking lot.  Why?  His public persona and his music seem so calm and laid-back.