Sam Ruddick: “Leak” (PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2012)

05/19/2012 § 3 Comments

Originally published in The Threepenny Review, Summer 2010.

I was telling Peyton about a friend of mine who’d seen a documentary on polar bears one day and quit his job in marketing the next; he’d moved to Alaska and gone to work for an environmental nonprofit, and I thought there must have been something wrong with him, because he’d always been so business-minded in the past, and the polar bear thing came out of nowhere.

That’s a perfect opening sentence to Ruddick’s story, not because it’s particularly interesting (though it’s revealing that this is the sort of pillow-talk Oscar shares with Peyton), but because it sums up the casual nature of the writing itself, which feels like a story someone languorously related to you so as to pass the time. And while a polar bear doesn’t appear out of nowhere, the characters who do appear, gumming up the works — Oscar’s ex, Stacy, and Petyon’s understanding husband, George — might as well, given how insubstantial they are. “She said it was like that sometimes,” comes the ending of the next paragraph. “People just did things.” The problem being, of course, that a story in which people just do things — crazy things, like popping in on your ex in the middle of the night, inviting yourself in, and making pasta — doesn’t really hold up. Just as Oscar wonders whether his nonprofit friend is crazy, transferring emotions from his father’s sickness into his professional life, so too do we wonder if these people are crazy: how else to explain their actions? Ruddick’s one greatest strength — not playing to stereotypical drama, which would dictate that Peyton and Stacy must fight (or team up against the double-timing man they’ve been seeing) or that George must be wielding a gun and a lot of pent-up anger — ironically becomes his weakness, too. Having assembled all these places in one room, he only avoids confrontation and conflict, which makes us wonder why, exactly, he’s bothered to write them all in at all.

Part of my boredom, I know, is due to the aplomb with which Mad Men writes about characters like Oscar, who I see as a Pete Campbell type: a bachelor who, although involved in a relationship, is constantly looking for something more, never having fully grown-up or evolved. Moreover, although this story was published first, it’s Mad Men‘s “Signal 30” that smartly handles the whole metaphorical “leak” situation that Ruddick alludes to here. In Mad Men, Pete decides to fix a leak — although he doesn’t know how — by randomly applying tools to pipes. And while he stops the dripping, he’s inadvertently bottled the pressure, and the faucet later explodes, leading to him being one-upped by the far more capable and manly Don Draper. In “Leak,” the story culminates with George, having arrived to pick up his wife Peyton (who has smashed up her car while attempting to go home, believing Oscar to still be entangled with Stacy, which, to be fair, is a healthy assumption given his inability to get Stacy to leave), preparing to fix the mess — this leak — that Oscar has been ignoring or, as the story posits, is just completely ignorant of: that’s how blind he is. “I went to the closet to get the toolbox. My mother had given it to me when I moved out of my parents’ house, nearly twenty years before, and I don’t think I’d opened it but once or twice in all that time.” I know, I know: ten pages of fluff to get to this? Where’s the story?

What I’m saying is that I understand Ruddick’s metaphor — it’s not a very complicated one — but it’s lacking the rich characterizations that would help to drive it home. Although this is written in the first-person, this is about as much as we get out of Oscar: “I’d have real problems, depending on what [Stacy said], and that was up to Stacy. Kicking her out would be as good as telling Peyton I was fucking her, which–in truth–had not been the case for several weeks.” The revelation here is supposed to be that Oscar was sleeping with both Stacy and Peyton at one point, but what’s missing is Oscar’s feelings on the matter: did he stop screwing Stacy because he was getting serious with Peyton, or because Stacy was crazy? (There’s an allusion in the story, too, that Oscar likes to be bad; again, this is wholly undeveloped.) Worse are the ways in which Stacy and George are treated: the latter, at least, is described as a man with an arrangement, and although he’s no looker, he apparently has things on the side, too. But Stacy? Trust me, I know there are crazy girls out there, but when a girl interrupts your affair out of boredom (she spends much of her time flirting with a police officer who shows up to file the car-crash report), then you’ve got issues with motivation. Ultimately, this isn’t a story that allows a lot for interpretation — it’s quite clear — and so it’s hard to not be disappointed by the rather shallow, drip-like observations Ruddick concludes with.

Sam Ruddick on “Leak”

Ouch. Sam notes that his first draft “was a solemn and dull affair,” and it can’t be a good sign that he’s only now making a “breakthrough in the way I think about writing.” Then again, his breakthrough is exactly what I take issue with: whereas he was once “overly concerned with plausibility: The actions of my characters had to make sense,” he’s now convinced that people, especially fictional ones, don’t act that way. I disagree, or at least think he’s oversimplified things. Characters don’t have to make sense to us, but they, for the most part, have to make sense to themselves, and as the author who is creating them, he still needs to be able to get inside their minds. I don’t think that “Leak” is “much more interesting” having been unshackled from reason; as I pointed out in my observations about “Signal 30” above, the joy of this scenario is in watching characters that you know react to unusual things. They might surprise you in the moment, but in hindsight, we should be able to understand where they were coming from . . . and perhaps because this story is so short, we haven’t learned enough to adequately look back.

Karen Carlson on “Leak”

Wow. I love disagreements, but I can’t say I’m not relieved to find that Karen Carlson is on almost exactly the same page as me. We even quoted the same sections from both the story and Sam’s notes about his story. The one thing Carlson gives to Ruddick’s writing is the way it’s “straddling the line between realism and absurdism.” I can’t say I agree with this — even with that quote about “clown cars” (which I believe is the editor’s observation, not Ruddick’s) — but that may be because I’m approaching this, as I said, with “Signal 30” still on the mind, and perhaps with Ionesco as too ready a touchstone for absurdism. In any case, while “mild amusement” is fine for a story, I think we’d all agree that the standards for a PEN/O. Henry Prize Story ought to be a great deal higher than that.

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§ 3 Responses to Sam Ruddick: “Leak” (PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2012)

  • Is this a review of the story as a piece of writing, or is it a demonstration of how you read? There seems to be a lot about yourself in here, is what I mean. You might have failed better had you made a thoughtful attempt to answer the rhetorical question you posed indirectly (in the royal WE, no less) at the end of your first paragraph, and if you had taken the Fail Better tagline to heart. It’s over there on the left if you want to have a look at it.

  • Aaron Riccio says:

    I’ll confess to sometimes slipping inadvertently into the royal we as a bad blogging habit, but I don’t think I’ve failed to address my issues with “Leak.” That sentence you reference deals with my personal response (and therefore how I read) to the story, but it follows a sentence dealing with the writing itself.

    In any case, comments like yours are always interesting (and rare), in that they’re criticizing me for not analyzing something (or getting it “wrong”) while at the same time not actually offering a view of their own. Yes, I’m looking for successes, as the tag-line suggests: but as strip-mining notes, you sometimes have to destroy something natural and beautiful in order to get to the metaphorically useful stuff inside. I’ve no problem ripping down edifices to find what works — again, for me — within. Or, in some cases, finding nothing of particular use or value and getting frustrated with the current notoriety-based publishing system.

  • Aristophanes says:

    Though I very much liked the laid back storytelling of Ruddick’s short, I thought this was well argued and you backed up everything you had to say with aplomb. I will be reading more of your reviews.

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