Moment of Attraction

There are many things about E.B. Johnson’s “Killer Heart” that I could talk about. This story, which won Glimmer Train’s recent short-story award for new writers and is published in the Summer 2008 issue, is dark and gripping and really great. I’m going to write about a very small piece of this story that I’m still wondering about a month after having read it:

Dooley and Tina met when his band was playing at Don Quixote’s, a college bar. Tina stood with the other college girls who pressed themselves against the stage; she did that shimmy thing that girls do, her arms going up slowly over her head, her hands crisscrossing, swimming like little bejeweled fishes in the spotlight that lit the crowd at the edge of the stage. Dooley watched as the hem of Tina’s blouse rose up, revealing a tan line just above her low-rise jeans, and a silver loop winked at him from her pierced navel. Tina looked Dooley right in the eye, nodded when she danced, like she knew exactly what she was doing. Tina was hot.

She was sure of herself. She knew what she had in her plus column, and she didn’t believe in hiding what was on the minus side, a fact that made Dooley fall in love with her right from the get go. “Listen,” she said on their second date, “I’m an only child, so I’ve got a lot of princess in me.” She pulled Dooley’s arm around her as they walked along the river, and then she leaned her head against his chest. “I’m not saying I plan to be that way till I die,” she went on, slipping her hand inside his shirt and cupping his ribs, then pulling him to her, “I’m just letting you know what you’re in for here.” Once he got to know Tina, the other girls Dooley had dated seemed just like that: girls. Tina was woman.

This description interests me because the moment of attraction between two people is always hard for me to describe. I want to express something beyond the physical, but it’s easy to turn a description of liking someone’s conversation into a terrible cliche. It’s risky for Johnson to say that Tina is woman and every other date is a girl. It could easily come off sounding trite. But I think it works here. The ideas that could be tired (Tina is confident, knows herself, is hot) become something more in combination. We see that she can make a confession of her shortcomings turn out sexy.

This moment is from the middle of the story, and a lot rides on it. At the start, we’re introduced to Tina and Dooley’s (very) troubled relationship. The primary impression at first is of Dooley’s acute pain over the trouble. When I got to this memory, I needed to get a good glimpse into what happened between the two of them when things were good. Though it included a lot of physical qualities, I learned things about the characters that I needed to know from how they interact with each other here.

As I said, this is far from the most stunning scene in the story. The solidity of this scene, however, enables many of the more heart-stopping scenes to be as gripping as they are. I highly recommend this story.

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5 responses to “Moment of Attraction

  1. I think this quote from “Killer Heart” suffers from the second of the two biggest problems I see in writing. The first problem is when people write in order to make an impression, like to appear smart or writerly or something, rather than writing to express something they really feel or think about. The quote above strikes me as honest, which is nice and hard to come by.

    The second biggest problem, the one that comes up when a writer is honestly trying to express, is when the writer is in denial. When reading this story, it’s clear that the writer counts on us understanding and appreciating Dooley’s admiration for the girl, not looking at him as a fool, being cynical or skeptical about him or the girl. Unfortunately, everything we learn about this girl points to her being an insecure college girl (her pierced belly-button, her preemptive warning about being a princess, blaming it on her being an only child). The writer doesn’t notice, thinks these things are signs of her being self-possessed and adult. This lack of insight is tragic; he obviously has a hard time seeing through girls like this one, and I can’t blame him. But a story fails immediately when the writer appears deluded instead of wise.

  2. I think you’re right that the two problems you identify are often present in stories, but I’m not sure if the second is quite operating here. I think it’s true that Dooley doesn’t notice the things you point out. But I’m not convinced the writer doesn’t notice.
    I’m never sure when writing on my blog how much of a story to give away, and I think I tend to the mysterious as a fault. But I will say that when Tina and Dooley end up married, she has a shrewish quality that seems directly related to what you’re pointing out above. On the one hand, Dooley clearly values her opinions about things. On the other hand, she is one of those people who can’t relax and let someone else be right.
    One of the things I liked about this story was that I bought that there was a lot of real feeling between the two of them, but also saw the deep flaws that made it hard (and eventually impossible for them to be together).

  3. You may be right. I can point out the exact stylistic issue that gives me this impression, though. He says, “She was sure of herself.” instead of something like “Dooley found her to be sure of herself.” Perhaps he’s established earlier in the story that these third-person descriptive statements were from the character’s voice, not the author’s, but I didn’t get that sense from the quote above. It sounds to me like the author’s saying, “She was sure of herself. You know what I mean. Everybody knows girls like this are hot.” But I could be totally wrong. I’d be interested in knowing what the author had to say about it.

    And I bring this up only because it’s the main thing I always want to know when I ask someone to read my work. “When did this author seem deluded instead of the character?” I tend to think the battle against my own delusion is my hardest one.

  4. Really interesting. I want to reread the story now with the question in mind: Has the author established that the third-person descriptive statements were from the character’s voice? I’ll try to do that later tonight. Also, if you end up reading the whole story, I’d be curious to know what you think about that.
    I’m also going to add your question (“When did this author seem deluded instead of the character?”) to my revision sheet (questions I ask myself when revising).

  5. Pingback: Missing the Target « Words, Words, Words

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