Amber Dermont Gets “The Point”

Amber Dermont’s short story “Lyndon” was included in Best New American Voices 2006. She’s a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has had stories published in Zoetrope, Open City, Alaska Quarterly Review, and other publications. She’s currently a fiction writer in residence at Rice University. Today, she’s talking about the title story in Charles D’Ambrosio’s first collection, The Point.

dermont.gifI’m a fiction writer so all of my favorite memories are false. Most are located in the lives of other people’s stories. I too have spent afternoons on the Lucinda River swimming the Australian Crawl. I too have taken off my false leg for a false bible salesman and been abandoned in a barn loft. With outstretched arms, I have stood on the roof of a synagogue and converted my mother, my rabbi, my friends. I have killed the Swede. I know Sonny and his Blues. I have visited the cemetery where Al Jolson is buried. These stories have transported me across state lines, down a vast rabbit hole, beyond the constraints of history, gender, and race.

My memory, though false, is rarely faulty and I’ve recently found myself in the throes of nostalgia, dwelling on one short story in particular: Charles D’Ambrosio’s “The Point.” The highly evocative title of this narrative conjures up multiple memories by referring simultaneously to a sharp end, a peninsula, a specific moment in time, an objective worth reaching, a unit of scoring, the attentive stance taken by a hunting dog, a jeweler’s measure of weight, a place where lovers retreat, and a mark formed by a sharp end. The story’s lush language, its unflinching examination of grief, its sorrowful sense of humor, and its unwavering devotion to family are worth reminiscing over, especially when the writer takes so many risks and breaks so many rules.

Never begin a story with a dream unless that dream is a nightmare. Preferably a nightmare involving a dead father, a helium balloon, and a stringbean. Better still, make sure our first-person narrator has been pushed out of his slumber by this nightmare, by the beach sand collecting in his sheets, and by the party his alcoholic mother is throwing in their home. Make sure when said mother enters the room that our narrator doesn’t recognize her: “A woman crossed over and sat on the edge of my bed, bending over me. It was mother.” Everything we need to know about the distance, the gulf that exists between this son and the woman who gave him life is located in the juxtaposition of those two sentences. Everything we need to know about the story to follow is located in this first paragraph and established through the kind of unusual sensory detail—the party’s silver smoke, the female guests who smell like rotting fruit, the hysterical clinking of ice cubes, the bitter twist of a vodka-soaked lemon peel—that locates the reader in a de-familiarized familiar world. The final sentence of the first paragraph sends the story off on a trajectory no reader can recover from. “When father was alive, (Mom) rarely drank, but after he shot himself you could say she really let herself go.” With this line, the bullet of the story leaves the comfort of its chamber and the hunt to see where it will ricochet and where it will strike is on.

thepoint.jpgOur narrator is a wise and wounded teenaged boy and his duty in the story is to escort one of the party guests to her home. Her name, ironically enough, is Mrs. Gurney. He carries Mrs. Gurney in a wagon made from the hatch of an old P.T. boat. Did I mention that the narrator’s father was himself a medic in Vietnam? This journey from one summer home on The Point to another lasts much longer than it should. Mrs. Gurney drunk, lonely, and insecure exhibits a catalogue of inappropriate behaviors: she whines, pleads, takes off her blouse. The narrator and Mrs. Gurney stumble along the beach mourning their old friend, Mr. Crutchfield—another fitting Dickensian name—who died earlier that summer.

Our narrator guides us through a litany of death and loss. He is a master storyteller, but by the time he finally gets Mrs. Gurney home and in her bed, by the time he stops to check in on her young sons, the one story he finds himself incapable of telling, no matter how much these children beg, is a bedtime story. He tells the boys that he doesn’t know any, and in this line we are rocked and swayed by the cumbersome weight of his father’s absence.

Something happens with Mrs. Gurney out on that beach—something real or imagined—and the narrator, unable to reconcile the implications of this something on his own, turns to his father for help. He reads the dead man’s wartime correspondence. One of the father’s letters interrupts the narrative—another rule broken, another risk taken. What happens next alters our sense of what the sharp or blunt point of this story might be. The father and son unite in a way we’d never anticipate. The ending predicts a certain fate for the narrator, one we’d do almost anything to see him avoid.

What is particularly amazing about this story is that it blends and blurs the world and concerns of the present with those of the past so seamlessly that the beaches of Washington state and the jungles of Vietnam are made one and the same. I can’t make the memory of this story go away. I can’t stop the bullet from firing and blasting through. Though the bullet harms everything in its path, the story grieves beautifully, and I as the reader am grateful for the journey.

7 February 2006 | selling shorts |