Thursday, November 25, 2004

Ennui, Already!

In Christopher Orlet's "Portrait of the Artist as an Old Drunk," which appears in the Fall 2004 issue of storySouth, there's one superlative joke. The narrator is selling sandpaper to the Amish when he hears that the Berlin Wall has fallen.

At length I went inside the office grinning ear to ear and asked the owner, a severe man with a long dusty beard, if he'd heard the news. He said he hadn't. I said, "No? The Berlin Wall has fallen." He looked at me with that deep, mistrustful look the Amish have of outsiders. "That's it for [C]ommunism," I said. "It's all over, the end of history." "Did you bring the samples?" he said brusquely.

The deadpan delivery of this joke works best when there is no explanation, but Orlet feels the need to explain it, and then kill it altogether with a metaphor:

I felt stupid for a moment. The Iron Curtain, I mean, what was that compared to the latest abrasive sample? The Amish had their own walls, you see, and they weren't made out of cement and razor wire.
What's ironic about this is that Orlet's intent is the very opposite of explanation. "Portrait" is a pastiche of fragments, told in a deadpan, dead-eyed style reminiscent of Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son. As these snapshots show, the narrator is largely disconnected from life, depressed and looking for meaning. It's an easy way to construct a story, leaving the writer unburdened by profluence, character, or scene-building. (The story could also use a good proofing.) Which is too bad. Orlet has verve and panache; I hate to see him slight his own gifts.

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