The Slow-Cooked Sentence

A hand through rough terrain

Rachael Conlin Levy

I’ve read three good stories about boys; stories that were defiant, disturbing and desperately funny. None of them triggered all these feelings at once, but the result of reading them close together left me watchful over my three sons. Two turn 13 this spring, while the six-year-old matures too quickly in his effort to catch up with his brothers. I’ve found that mothering sons calls for a different set of skills than those I use with my daughter, where I rely heavily on my own experiences and memories as a girl. But with boys I’m in strange land, grateful for fellow travelers and guides like these three women writers.

Doris Lessing’s “Through the Tunnel” is a coming-of-age story about a 11-year-old Jerry who is vacationing at the beach with his widow mother. The mother is “determined to be neither possessive nor lacking in devotion,” and Jerry, in turn, acts from an “unfailing impulse of contrition — a sort of chivalry.” During the vacation Jerry explores a wild and rocky bay alone where he meets some older boys and accepts a physical challenge that is the rite of passage or bildungsroman. “Through the Tunnel” is read by Jane Kaczmarek at Selected Shorts.

“The Other Place” by Mary Gaitskill explores the consciousness of a man who fantasizes about hurting women and worries that his son has inherited his obsession. Jennifer Egan chose “The Other Place” to read on the New Yorker’s podcast because she said it conveyed “a feeling of intense menace, but mixed with a lot of other complicated humanity, specifically parenthood, and, I think, too, the feeling of redemption that somehow Mary Gaitskill managed to wrest from this very dark and threatening situation.”

The third story is found in Xhenet Aliu’s debut collection, “Domesticated Wild Things.” “The Kill Jar” is narrated by Kevin Jr., a fifth-grader who dreams of being an entomologist. His  mom takes his Ritalin and sleeps with her former father-in-law, whom Kevin Jr. calls Old Dad, as opposed to his biological Actual Dad. This messed-up family is so funny and sad, their problems so deeply entrenched, that hope could easily suffocate alongside the bugs in Kevin Jr.’s kill jar, but Aliu won’t allow it. “The Kill Jar” is one of the strongest stories in “Domesticated Wild Things,” which examines the flawed, yet resilient people labeled The Poor.

I picked up “Domesticated Wild Things” at the annual conference of Association of Writers and Writing Programs, and it’s one of the books and magazines I’d like to share with you. If you’re interested in receiving slightly used, but generally good reading, leave a comment here and I’ll include your name in a random drawing at the end of the month.

One response to “A hand through rough terrain”

  1. Andrea says:

    I will have to check these stories out, Rachel. Boys are certainly a species unto themselves (or so they seem much of the time). Another story I’d suggest adding to the list–of course I can’t remember the author or the title, but I’ll look it up when I get home–from the New Yorker a few weeks ago, about a 13-year-old boy (in Sweden, I think) and his first love/kiss. It was quite the window into the young teenage boy’s brain…I was almost tempted to hand it to my son to read, but then decided against it.

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