A Tale from the Hill Country
by Marie Marshall
Curl Up and Burn
short story by Samuel Snoek-Brown
review by Marie Marshall
I would not normally review a short story, but this particular one by Sam Snoek-Brown is ten-thousand-or-so words long, and if the narrative were expanded it would start to knock on the door of novella. However, a short story it is, lean of excessive development and sharply focused. That leanness pulls us along and makes sure our attention is not diverted.
The subject matter is a ‘statutory rape’ case in Texas, its effects on the community and the persons involved, and its aftermath. The story’s style of presentation is one of reportage. It is written as if it is a magazine article. The narrator is as detached and non-judgmental as an investigative reporter, but his presence ‘interviewing’ and interacting with the personae of the story allows their character to be drawn out. The cut-and-paste nature of the narrative allows it to be episodic, which accentuates that drawing-out – for example, the meeting between the narrator and the convicted man’s father, the latter’s pickup blocking the road, a shotgun pointedly on display on the gun-rack, is loaded with tension and menace.
Another thing that this episodic treatment enables is a presentation of the ‘facts’ in a non-linear way. The fact that a man has been convicted of statutory rape and has served twelve years in a tough prison is made known very early in the story. The details of the case are revealed, but not necessarily in chronological sequence. Rather they are cut with historical detail, sections of modern supposed interviews with townsfolk, and with descriptions of the protagonist’s drives around his home town, where he and the crime of which he has been convicted are well-known, and of his obsession with building and maintaining a model of the town in which things he observes in everyday life modify the layout. Essentially there is no final resolution to the story, but we do realise that a story has been told. The protagonist’s final statement is terse, almost threatening in tone, but remains enigmatic.
Adding to the air of reportage is the research, including historical research, that the author has pasted into the story. The story is set in a real town in Texas – the author himself was brought up in Texas and can therefore be relied upon to give the setting an air of authenticity. Of course his storytelling style does take over from the journalistic style in places, notably in the descriptions of the protagonist’s run-in with his Nemesis, a local Deputy, and the title is a storyteller’s title, not a journalist’s.
I have a couple of niggles – no story is perfect, let’s face it. Firstly there is much made of a teenage girl’s ‘chatting on the internet’; I don’t know whether Texas was a long way ahead of us (I’m writing this from the point of view of a British reader), but in the early 1990s, when this was supposed to have taken place, chatrooms and emails were not as common as they now are, and most households, if they had a computer, were on a dial-up system for the internet, which took up phone time and therefore parents’ money. I could be out-of-touch, but this detail momentarily halted my ride through the story. Secondly, the girl in question is Chinese-American, and whilst her father has the English given name John, her full name appears to be wholly Cantonese. When a Chinese character appears in a work be a non-Chinese writer, I often wonder – maybe unfairly, I’ll grant you – whether her name has been plucked out of the air. I put the name of this character into an image search engine and came up with pictures of a male boxer. Like I said, these are only niggles, and could be my own reading quirks.
When it comes down to it, this is a compelling story, excellently written and insightful, moral but not moralistic. Sam Snoek-Brown is a tireless craftsman of the short story, and Curl Up and Burn shows that he has been working out.
Thorough, interesting review — made me want to read the story all over again! I especially like when you point out the bits that reveal the storyteller vs. the journalist, especially the detail of the title coming from the storyteller’s perspective. I hadn’t thought of it like that before, and I could imagine myself as a student in an English class, analyzing this story in regards to perspective and points-of-view. 🙂
Hi Jen. I hope I didn’t go over-the-top with close analysis. That harks back to my school days. I tried to look at it from the point of view of a writer, and I have to say that Sam is really on-the-ball.
It shows how even a most carefully crafted tale can stop a reader in tracks of enjoyment if there is a lapse in attention to small detail.
I find it bewilderingly impossible to open comments on your latest post. If there is a button there, I certainly can’t find it.
I think it’s something in me rather than a particular lapse in the writer’s attention. I’m too picky. We’re talking Sam Snoek-Brown here, and he’s a guy who can really write.
If you mean ‘Powm!’, by the way, I fixed that. Please try again. WordPress has been a little glitchy today, for some reason, and has just crashed my browser – which sometimes happens 😦
No, I mean causing a distraction by what might seem an anachronism; and perhaps not selecting names with enough care. Like the classic story of the symbol taken at random from a Chinese menu for a T-shirt design, ‘Cheap but Delicious’.
I thought the ‘Powm’ was being sort-of Scots!
Yes I understood perfectly, which is why I adressed your comments in two separate paragraphs in my reply. 🙂
Anyhow, you may now leave comments on ‘Powm!’ as I have managed to fix the glitch.