A Tale from the Hill Country

by Marie Marshall

Curl Up and Burn
short story by Samuel Snoek-Brown
review by Marie Marshall

Kendall County Courthouse, Texas.

Kendall County Courthouse, Texas.

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.