On Looking Around

Matt Bell has a new story, “The Founder of this Town,” up at Twelve Stories. Readers of this blog will know I admire Matt’s work a great deal, and this story is no exception. I read it as a story about how easy it is to know absolutely nothing about the things that surround me on a daily basis. It’s told in a humorous style:

Then this guy came up to me looking like a real character, wearing cargo pants and one of those vests with all the pockets.  He had a camera in his hands, a real pro job, and he says to me, “Are you from this town?”  And I said, “Yes.”  And he said, “Have you always lived here?”  And I said, “Yes.”  And he said, “Do you know the name of this person?” and then he took a picture of the statue, to which I said, “No, I don’t know his name, but he’s the founder of this town,” which was something I had always wanted to tell someone.  Then he took a picture of me, which made me mad because he didn’t warn me first and because I had tuna fish in my moustache.  I could feel it there, cold and sticky, but when I raised my napkin to wipe my face, he took another picture of me, which made me feel stupid.  I didn’t know whether to wipe my face or just leave it.  I wondered about magnification, about lighting.

It’s easy to laugh at the vain buffoon narrating the story, but I wonder how well I’d pass a similar test of knowledge. I try to stay aware, but it’s all too easy to get caught traveling numbly from home to work and back again. I’ve consciously sought some things out around where I live. For example, I found out about a castle about two hours north of here, built by an eccentric inventor. I read about it, and drove there to see it. But how many statues, just within a mile, would puzzle me? Shortly after I moved here, I noticed a sign not two blocks away pointing to Kennedy’s birthplace, and, though I’ve always meant to follow the sign, I never have.

On his blog, Matt says:

I was glad they took this one, as it’s in a voice I hadn’t used in a while, but which I have fun writing– It’s sort of a doomed but well-meaning idiot voice, I think.

I think that sort of voice only comes off honest when the writer approaches it with identification and compassion as much as condescension, and the ending of “The Founder of the Town” certainly made me believe in the sincere questioning of the narrator, and, as a result, the author.

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