Yesterday I read something very, very Southern in the New York Times. For months now the newspaper fairy has been delivering to my doorstep a free copy of the Sunday Times. I used to "borrow" the local public library’s copy early sabbath AM — returning it before the den of books opened on Monday — until, lucky for me, the daily gods saw fit to save me the two-mile drive. Now, it’s waiting thickly folded and wrapped in thin blue plastic when the sun comes up, minus that obscene $5 price tag Starbucks requires. But, back to the gorgeously written piece…it was about a frozen deer carcass in southeast Tennessee.
The writer is Kevin Wilson. I know him, barely, from my earliest introduction to this thing called the writing life. He sat in for my then-professor, the great and often-unheralded novelist Tony Earley, when Tony had an interference. Sidenote: Tony’s "The Thing and the Other Thing" lecture should be explained in brief to fully explore Kevin’s short piece in the Times. Here goes my best Cliff’s Notes of it…
The Thing and the Other Thing: This is TE’s naming of metaphor in fiction. Plain enough for all the college freshman wannabe writer. Always, always, always Tony assigns his intro fiction students Ernest Hemingway’s early stories. "Indian Camp" and "The End of Something" come to mind immediately as I think back. For time’s sake, let’s use the latter to explain the Thing and the Other Thing (TOT). Once again, here goes. So the class reads this slender collection of stories, a dream assignment for us lazy reader-students, and a classic work of American writing, then the students come prepared to hear about TOT. Tony delivers an explanation humbly given and softly spoken, like a quiet planting of a seed. Immediately, the students question TE’s skill/talent/expertise because of the dreadfully boring title. They can’t get past it. Couldn’t he choose something more sexy, The Butcher and the Babe, perhaps, or something more catchy like Meta-Dummies. Even so, he patiently starts in with a story.
"The End of Something" is about 3 pages long and shows a guy and a girl breaking up. He’s rowing a boat or something near an old warehouse on a river, stumbling through the breakup dialogue, and by the end he goes fishing with a buddy and the girl boo-hoo’s off. Seems pretty simple. Hemingway, what a hack right? Wrong. There’s a whole universe of stuff happening in this 10 minute read. It’s incredible. Ask Tony. What I missedthe first go-round was the warehouse, the old timber factory on the river, how it exudes in its emptyness the leftover way of life crumbling and gone away right next to this young love that’s as dried-up as the concrete slab where machines once hummed. The relational break-up, if it were a fish, is swimming in the sea of sad endings. The Thing and the Other Thing. They look enough alike to inject more meaning but not too much to hammer the idea too hard.
So, when you click on this link to Kevin’s nonfiction piece, "Winter in Tennessee," think about Tony’s classic lecture. When Kevin taught our class, he more than once referred to The Thing and the Other Thing. Years later, when I read books and stories, I do the same.
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