Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Mag Watch: One Story, Issue 154 ("Who Cycles Into Our Valley" by Benjamin Solomon)

I have an unfair prejudice against stories which are little more than dense paragraphs with few discernible breaks for dialogue.  I think, This is a story which will be heavy on description, boggy with exposition, and will drag my eyes along the page like they've got leaded weights attached.  Like I said, it's completely and irrationally unfair and I realize many great stories are light on dialogue ("The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," "Big Two-Hearted River," and "The Swimmer" among them).

So, it was with wariness and a slight sinking of the heart that I opened the latest issue of One Story and saw continent-sized chunks of text.

It took only two pages, however, for me to realize that, while not perfect, Benjamin Solomon's short story "Who Cycles Into Our Valley" is engaging and deeply effective--enough to make me think once again about the prejudices we carry as readers which can make or break an otherwise good piece of fiction over the smallest and silliest of "rules."

Here's a summary of the plot in this issue of One Story: a father and his son ride a tandem bike around the hills of Spain one afternoon.

That's it.  The only movement you'll find here is the uphill-downhill momentum of the bike.  "Who Cycles Into Our Valley" concentrates on the inner lives of these two characters who find themselves at crucial crossroads: the father is newly divorced, the adult son is falling out of love with his girlfriend.  But, as with all good short fiction, it's the interstitial pockets of insight where you'll find the true movement.  Solomon glides back and forth between the heads of the two nameless characters, revealing the nature of their relationship through idle musings and flashbacks.  Here's one from the father's perspective:
He was twenty-two years old when his son was born, still in college, and nights he worked as an orderly in the burn ward at the hospital, and one night he had to wheel a little burned boy his son's age down the hall.  The boy's face was covered in bandages, his arms, his legs, all burned under circumstances the father would never know, and yet as he wheeled the little burned body down the hallway and stared at the perfectly unmarred fingertips protruding from the bandages, the father imagined scenario after scenario of his own son getting burned, and with each one he felt it heavier and more intense, the utter pain of loving a child, and how that pain would only grow and multiply were he to have more children as he and his wife had planned, and suddenly he was surrounded by burned children, all of them his own, little boys and girls bandaged and festering and crying in pain, and at that moment he knew he couldn't bear to have any more children, and that doing so would be like striking matches beneath a cradle and hoping everything would be okay.

The story is characterized by silence--minimal dialogue between father and son, the stillness of the countryside, the singular ambition to pedal forward over the approaching hills with only the sound of breath and wind filling the ears.  Without the clatter of speech, we pay attention to the loneliness of the characters and Solomon's symbolic use of the countryside and the tandem bike (the story begins with the father in front, but a shift in power occurs at the end as the son takes the lead).

If "Who Cycles Into Our Valley" has a fault it's in the fact that we never get intimate enough with the unnamed father and son, despite the startling emotional details of their lives we're privy to.  For whatever reason, Solomon holds them from us at arm's length.

It's the one drawback to a story which, despite the heavy blocks of paragraphs, carries us along with clear and beautiful language.  By the end, I felt like the son as he pedaled across the Spanish landscape: "giving himself over to the bicycle and the road and the hill."  As a reader, "Who Cycles Into Our Valley" allowed me to abandon all my wrong-headed notions and be briefly propelled by the author's momentum.  It was quite a ride.

(If you don't already subscribe to One Story, you can order a copy of Issue 154 on this page.)

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