Justin Tussing: “The Runner”

12/12/2011 § Leave a comment

Originally published in A Public Space 14, 2011.

To its parents, a child is not limited to being a blessing or a curse. To avoid such limits in his own writing about the subject, Tussing focuses on brief yet telling scenes — few longer than two paragraphs — and finds creative ways to describe the changes that this child has wrought. The writing is edited to within an inch of its life — practically every sentence has meaning — and while I’d normally love that, it’s hit-or-miss here because of the occasional stretches to be inventive (some sections are crammed with overwritten prose), or the lapses into ambiguity (caused by our limited exposure to these third-person characters).

The story opens with a sort of Tolstoy-like riff: “The boy’s birth had been unreasonable, in all the ordinary ways” (“Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”). It then tries to insert some unusual levity into the labor, describing it as “a shocking, comic stabbing” and adding that “The mother said she felt like Sisyphus on a StairMaster; then she jettisoned her humor and her modesty.” As the labor continues into its “boring” phase, the mother is passively described as “an invisible tourist: in Istanbul she wore a head scarf, in London a trench coat.” For the delivery, it’s back to being direct: “A good-humored nurse buried a needle in the mother’s spine.” And as the child comes out, poetry again: “The amphibious boy unfolded and the mother’s stomach collapsed like a souffle.” Mostly quotable stuff (there’s the awkward and cliche-by-comparison “The room became as lurid as a crime scene”), and yet it’s somehow overzealous and disjointed all together: a literary overdose.

We zoom onward through the sections: first, the father feels like a dog, then like a phosphorous candle: “Mowing the lawn, washing laundry, jerking off, he felt his vast potential evaporate.” He begins to run (“to combat a growing sense of his own ethereality”), meditates, sleeps with a florist, stops sleeping with a florist, finds himself pulled back home. The mother overcompensates for her initial girlself fears (and possibly hormones) that she is “not supposed to be a mother” by “nursing him until his second birthday,” changes tactics after reading some child-rearing books, imagines that her husband has drowned (was he once a fisherman, or was that a dream, too?), she drinks, she starts “a coed soccer league for preschoolers,” she begins and ends (or has ended) an affair.

The consequence of such speed is that we don’t see things how these changes develop; they just happen. (Sort of like watching sports highlights as opposed to the game.) We can pull only what the author wants us to pull from them, a task made more difficulty by the author’s lack of clarity regarding what he wants us to pull from them. The final sections imply that they are less happy than happy alone together (“‘Jesus fucking Christ,’ the mother said, while the credits floated up on the screen, ‘don’t think you’re the only one suffering'”), but that these two people, who claim to wish to be as free as children themselves, are ultimately glad to not have that freedom, i.e., to be united by the responsibility of a child:

They sat together while cars raced down the street. Every car might have belonged to the man he’d seen the mother with, or to the florist, to some past or future lover, to some past or future ex…. She set the box on the dining room table. Nestled inside, as bright as jewelry, lay a trumpet. The father brushed the box with his fingertips. It was inconceivable that anyone other than the boy might open the package. The mother and father smiled at each other; the brown box sat before them like a suckling pig. They could hardly wait for the boy to get home.

Tussing’s been publishing fiction since 2000, and yet his impressive prose still feels fresh and built to burst off the page. It’s perhaps too explosive — to the point of distraction — in what should be a quieter meditation on the family dynamic (at one point, the boy is compared to a “hand grenade,” another compares the sleep deprivation the baby innocently brings with it to the sort of torture best addressed by the Geneva Convention). But on the whole, I’d rather have a story overflowing with details than a bland and passionless narrative. (For example, this squeezed-in bit on the grandparents: “It bothered the parents how little these older people resembled the parents they had once been. Would they make the boy sit with a broken arm until the final episode of M*A*S*H finished airing?”)

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