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Also by Tim Schell:
The Dancing Gorilla | Our Extended Worry
Our Extended Worry
Having served as co-editor of Clackamas Literary Review for five years before my departure last year, it was my job each year to winnow the some 150 entries in the Willamette Award for Fiction down to ten which then would be presented to the final judge with a tinge of disquietude; disquietude, I say, for what if I had missed a gem in all those boxes of manuscripts? Should I go back and spend two more weeks reading them all again? Now, serving as the final judge, I realize that picking a winner from the final ten is a far easier process than that which Mr. Brad Stiles had to go through; from that mountain of stories, Mr. Stiles has given me one small but solid hill upon which I have found a winner.
Ms. Mary Carroll-Hackett’s story "Life Line" is the winner of this year’s Willamette Award for several reasons, not the least of which is her highlighting the very real yet futile extended worry we exercise for those we love: here the protagonist, Meryl Beulow, a single mother hard at work in a small-town grill, is anxious about her seven-year old son who is at school as she labors breading chicken livers for the blue-collar workers who patronize the Citgo, the only gas station/grill in the small town of Bryanstown.
Having taught creative writing for many years, I have seen far too many stories wherein no one seems to have a job. Most of our adult lives are spent toiling away at some occupation, yet the writers I allude to seem to be under the impression that the food on their characters’ tables is a transcendentally delivered endowment. Not Ms. Carroll-Hackett: Meryl Beulow works hard with her friend Estelle, the two of them breading chicken livers so that their hands wear the clumsy gloves of flour and egg, then cooking the livers in sizzling grease as their customers wait at the counter making small talk as their hunger grows.
In reading seven student short stories, Flannery O’Connor wrote: "The first thing that any professional writer is conscious of in reading anything is, naturally, the use of language. Now the use of language in these stories was such that, with one exception, it would be difficult to distinguish one story from another." I recall this now because though the ten finalists all had attributes of their own, "Life Line" was the most original in its use of language, of local idiom in the dialogue. In reading the story, observe not only the idioms employed in both Meryl and Estelle’s dialogue, but note how deftly Ms. Carroll-Hackett embodies the dialogue. Far too often, writers drop setting and action when writing dialogue as if people suddenly stop everything—their work, their gestures, their entire movement—just so they can talk. In "Life Line," the characters’ speech is wedded with their actions so that the verisimilitude to our real lives grounds us in the reality of the story as follows:
Estelle stepped up with a new empty tray; she whisked the full one away, setting it by the fryer, calling over her shoulder. "He had the cold long?"
"Day or so. Just long enough to make him ill as a snake." Meryl grabbed up the salt and pepper and shook them over the bowl. "But you know how he is. Take his shoes off in the dead a winter."
"He’s always been a barefoot baby." Estelle laughed.
Bryanstown is small-town America, and Ms. Carroll-Hackett does not let the reader forget it. She keeps the reader grounded in this physical world by appealing to all of the readers’ senses so that we can believe in the characters who inhabit it. In "Life Line," Ms. Carroll-Hackett utilizes all the elements of fiction, and she does something else not all of the other contestants do: she completes the entire arc of a story with requisite conflict, rising tension, climax and denouement, utilizing all in her depiction of Meryl Beulow’s tough but loving world. Kudos, then, to the author, the winner of the 2002 Willamette Award for Fiction.
"Life Line" is the missing gem.
Printed in the Fall/Winter 2003 issue of CLR
Tim Schell is a former editor of Clackamas Literary Review. His short fiction and essays have appeared in numerous literary journals and magazines. He is the co-author of Mooring Against the Tide: Writing Fiction and Poetry.
Currently he is at work on a novel in Albuquerque where he is an adjunct faculty member at the University of New Mexico.
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