Son of Mr. Green Jeans: Fatherhood from Allen to Zappa

[an analysis by Skylar Rush]

“Son of Mr. Green Jeans, A Meditation on Fathers” is an essay that—through various, and at times random segments concerning numerous different people or situations—elicits the importance of fathers and fatherhood in general. Moore portrays this importance in a very original way, using short little snippets about anything from bees and carp, to xenogenesis and his own experience as a father. These excerpts can prove humorous at times, and rather somber at others. Either way, they are highly effective in illustrating his main goal. I really enjoyed this essay and the way it (without having any plot whatsoever) effectively demonstrated how the presence of a father, or lack thereof, can alter the course of a person’s life. He even placed a short quiz right in the middle of the piece to expound his main idea and keep the reader’s eyes and thoughts engaged. Moore brilliantly utilized nonlinear structure to make the story come full circle, placing these little modules in alphabetical order and resolving all tension in the last two, “Y-Chromosomes” and “Zappa.”

KITTEN

Kitten, the youngest daughter on Father Knows Best, was played by Lauren Chapin.

LAUREN CHAPIN

Chapin’s father, we later learned, molested her, and her mother was a severe alcoholic. After Father Knows Best ended in 1960, Chapin’s life came apart. At age sixteen, she married an auto mechanic. At age eighteen, she became addicted to heroin and began working as a prostitute.

Moore’s use of nonlinear structure is shown here in his two sections of the piece concerning an actress that played the youngest daughter on a TV show in the fifties about a “perfect American family.” He uses these two modules two show that this TV family was something he wanted for his own life at the time. But outside the frame of the camera shot, Chaplin was a product of her own home environment. In a later snippet entitled “Religion,” Moore returns to Chaplin, describing how she finds Jesus in 1979 and turns her life around. This yet again expounds the importance of a fatherly presence in life through God who is viewed as the heavenly father that guides and protects us in our journey through life.

Dinty Moore uses this unusual fragmented arrangement to provide the reader with a different perspective on the father juxtaposed with his own story of fatherhood. Towards the middle of the piece, he describes a conversation with his wife in which she expresses her desire to have children. He tells her she is crazy, stating, “Convinced that she had just proposed the worst imaginable idea, I stood from my chair, looked straight ahead, and literally marched out of the room.” His attitude was undoubtedly stemming from his own personal experiences with his stuttering, drunk father—fearful that he would put someone else through the nightmare that he endured as a son. Later on in his section entitled “Vasectomies,” he says quite simply, “I had a vasectomy in 1994.” As the reader we understand the tension about Moore having children to be resolved quite abruptly, and to be honest, in a rather unsatisfying manner. But in the second to last passage, “Y-Chromosomes” he discusses that he did in fact have a daughter before his vasectomy and she has inherited only the “Moore family’s better traits” describing himself as lucky. Though lacking of any tangible and continuous thread, Dinty Moore creates a concrete, cathartic story on the importance of the father figure in one’s life. Did I mention that Tim Allen’s real last name is Dick?

Correctness

[an analysis by Sam Bilheimer]

Jo Ann Beard’s story, “The Fourth State of Matter,” is a terrifying account of the shooting at the University of Iowa in November of 1991. Surrounding the intense passage depicting the moment Gang Lu opens fire on several faculty members, Beard juxtaposes her daily troubles, work experiences, friendships, and her sickly collie.

Magnificently, Beard manages to depict the most unsettling scene that I have ever had the pleasure of reading. When Gang Lu begins his shooting spree, the prose becomes disjointed yet somehow flows much more smoothly than many properly-structured sentences ever have.

The sentences become fragmented: “The third bullet in the right hand, the fourth in the chest.” The sentences go off, structurally and succinctly, like Gang’s bullets. “Smoke,” is its own complete sentence, and so is “Reload.” This systematic and fast prose moves this piece along at just the right pace.

While reading this story, I began to change the sentences around in my head, “correcting” them. It’s probably unnecessary to state this, because it will be clear once you read my “corrections,” but what I did made the sentences so much worse. When grammatically correct, the sentence, “Reload. Two more for Chris, one for Shan. Exit the building, cross two streets, run across the green, into building number two and upstairs,” would become the significantly less poetic, “He reloads and shoots two more at Chris and one at Shan. He exits the building, crosses two streets, runs across the green, and goes upstairs into building number two.” Those extra words kill the prose. Beard’s original syntax is like a camera tracking Gang Lu’s movements perfectly. As he moves from the first building to the next, we move with him. Urgency. Nothing more. Nothing less.

But why is the “correct” way working so poorly? As a newly appointed assistant copy-editor for an independent fiction magazine, this bothered me. Isn’t proper grammar the right way to go forever and always? Perhaps not. “Correctness” must sometimes be thrown to the side when it gets in the way of the readability and artful essence of a piece. If Beard had a stricter editor who was less than pleased with the frequent use of sometimes clunky, but always cinematic, sentences, this story may not have been called one of the “Best American Essays” in 1997.

Movement (in a Pastor’s Voice)

[a poem by Allen James]

I hear brains frying like fried green tomatoes
as we flip through life’s pages, trying
We urgently need movement
Yes we do.
Without movement
we’d experience irritability
Yes we would.
Like a new-born in need of
warm breast milk for suck,
a soothing back rub and such
Yes we do.
Even our bowels
need movement, or we get inflamed like Red Hots on inside
It starts showing up on the outside
Yes we do.
We were designed for movement
like in Exodus
male babies had to hide and move
or lose their life
Yes they did.

On our jobs
Our hard working jobs
Whether it’s sitting at a desk, bored to pieces
typing all day, staring at screens till are eyes are sore
we need
promotions
A raise, a bonus, some appreciation
for giving solid hours of our life to
Them
Although we are servants
and we consider the busy ant,
we get tired
Plant us on a pair of Boeing 747 wings
We want higher, and higher, and higher
Movement gives a sense of satisfaction
so we give action, and more action
as our lives symbolize balled fists
We fight like Evander, or Tyson, or Bow
Yes we do.
For the good life
we need movement
Yes we do!

The Unwanted Chickens

[an analysis by Michaela Tashjian]

Mary Clearman Blew’s “The Unwanted Child” opens with the narrator’s discovery that she is pregnant. While the end of the story returns to this discovery and the concerns of the opening scene, the reader does not arrive there until after he or she has partaken of the array of conflict, questions, and insecurities that surface with Blew’s exploration of the history of women in her family. The title of Blew’s piece tells of its central theme: unwantedness. At first glance, one expects the story to focus on the unborn child which the narrator does not want. Just a few pages in, however, the focus moves from the narrator’s future motherhood to her past daughterhood. The fourth scene begins, “My mother was an unwanted child” (46). As Blew investigates her mother’s childhood unwantedness, the reader finds the author in the territory of her own childhood suspicion that she too was unwanted by her mother. Her memories, haunted by a lack of context, raise many questions for her. The author’s eloquent use of questions in “The Unwanted Child” makes it a strong piece; she slips them into the narrative with a subtlety that holds the story together, making it more emotionally resonant than a traditional narrative.

The first questions in the text are the narrator’s responses to her husband’s ranting about pregnancy prevention theories: “What difference does it make now? Why can’t he shut up?” These questions are saturated with anxiety, weariness, and grief. They say more than “I wish he would shut up,” and say it more eloquently than “I feel anxious, weary, and distraught, and I just want to be left alone.” The next question, “Why get married at eighteen?” refamiliarizes the reader with the narrator’s voice and sets up the context of the following back story; no time or attention is wasted in scenery description. When Blew returns to the present conflict (her pregnancy) after discussing her mother, she again uses questions to draw the reader’s attention: “And the pregnant eighteen-year-old? What about her?” She soon moves on to the real question of the text, not the question of “What will I do?” one my ask when presented with a giant of a problem, but the question “What could I have done differently?” that one often asks him or herself in the years after the problem has long since worn out its welcome.

Another aspect of this work which is vital to its successfulness is the timing of its most disturbing scene, the heart of the story. While the location of the story’s heart is up to the reader’s interpretation, it goes without saying that the scene on page 51 is a likely contestant: Blew’s mother, upon finding seven-year-old Blew in a tub of water with her little sister, accuses her of wanting to murder her sister. This is a traumatic moment for Blew, reminding her of an even more traumatic episode in her life: “I had . . . drowned a setting of baby chicks in a rain barrel,” she says of a time she had “wanted them to swim. I can just remember catching a chick and holding it in the water until it stopped squirming and then laying it down to catch a fresh one. I didn’t stop until I had drowned the whole dozen and laid them out in a sodden yellow row” (51).

Blew describes the tragically innocent event so beautifully and matter-of-factly that its standing as the story’s crux is subtle. The scene and its relation to the episode of the little sister in the water tub open up all kinds of questions for the narrator: does she have a murderous impulse? Does her mother have a murderous impulse? Tarrying beneath the surface are the real questions of the piece: did my mother love me? am I capable of love? Certainly, the scene would lose its power if Blew had jumped into it at the very beginning: Let me tell you about a time I accidentally drowned some baby chickens.

Often, a writer will not end a piece with a question because it seems to defeat the purpose of conclusion. However, as illustrated in the above paragraphs, questions often come naturally with this narrator’s voice, and here, they express themes of anxiety and many other emotions with great economy of words.

No One Can Change the Past

[an analysis by Lydia Moeller]

The story “If You Knew Then What I Know Now” by Ryan Van Meter is about a pretend kiss between two boys that held heavy meaning for the young narrator, Meter, who witnessed it. Told in second-person point of view, and in a self-reflective manner, the story is about the narrator who is talking to his younger self about a choice he made to do a project with two boys, Mark and Jared, in the sixth grade. When the trio meet at Mark’s house to work on the project, Mark and Jared pretend to kiss in front of Meter. This created an uncomfortable encounter for Meter, one that came too soon for the naive narrator. Embodied in this kiss was a part of Meter—a part he was too young to fully understand and not ready to face or admit. He had not yet come to terms with the fact that he was gay, nor was he ready to openly express his inner feelings; this experience added to his confusion. The narrator calls it “the biggest kiss you ever saw,” which illustrates the monstrous impact it had on his early life. At the end of story, Jared and Meter meet again at their 10-year high school reunion, where some form of closure between them occurs. The story is told as a warning, in a sense, to his younger self that he would save his future-self much strife if he could avoid witnessing that kiss.

Ryan Van Meter writes this story in what I call an omniscient second-person point of view, and the result creates a profound resonance. For example: “You’ll knock on the closed door. You’ll think it’s odd that the door is closed,” is known as second-person point of view. Interestingly, though, for this story, the “you” to which the author is referring is really a younger version of himself. He recounts a particular event in the sixth grade that would not come to a resolution until his 10-year high school reunion. The author tells the story in an “if only” way, like, “if only you knew then” in the sixth grade “what I know now, then we could avoid all the discord that follow this event (hence the title of the piece). Here is a quote which demonstrates the “if only” attitude of the author: “If you do agree to meet with them at Mark’s house then I don’t know what to tell you. If you meet there it’s probably all going to happen the way it’s going to happen.” Prior to this, the narrator urges his younger self to “meet at the library” or to “see if there’s another group [young Meter] can get into.” The result of Meter choosing this perspective creates a personal feeling of empathy towards the character and a deeper understanding of Meter himself. His ability to portray that feeling so well in this piece by using the “omniscient second-person point of view” is what makes this story resonate with its reader, and have a deeper connection to the character in the story.

In choosing to do the project in the sixth grade with Mark and Jared, the first “kiss” he ever saw between two boys occurred, but it was one he wasn’t ready to see: “They are trying to get you to say things about yourself that you won’t be ready to say for several more years, and that’s what will hurt the most about this afternoon” (522). The reader can immediately assume the author is still at heart just an adolescent boy struggling with his sexuality, struggling to be normal and accepted. “One day someone will ask you about the first time you kissed a boy, and you will think of this kiss… the kiss that isn’t really a kiss and isn’t really yours… It will be the biggest kiss you ever saw.” Now an adult, Meter writes with a longing to spare his younger self from the pain of that what that kiss represented.

The second-person point of view creates a deeper emotional attachment for the reader, therefore the ending is much more climactic for the reader as well. Meter is approached by Jared at their 10-year high school reunion, and “[Meter] almost thought [he’d] made it through the night without talking to [Jared].” A bitter contempt is still there, which the reader can understand. The suffering is expressed throughout the piece by Meter, so when he sees Jared at the reunion it is easy to understand why he would want to avoid him. When Jared goes to apologize, Meter stops him, claiming he knows what he is going to say, but Meter feels, “It would seem too easy, too obvious for this tormentor to apologize at your reunion.” The resolution comes with this statement: “You think it’s strange that you assumed you were the only boy hurt by that kiss in Mark’s bedroom. But you see that Jared carries that day with him like you do; he carries a shame not very different from yours.” The point of view allows us to see Meter’s transformation; his epiphany that those boys, or Jared at least, have thought just as much about that kiss as Meter had, and have been left with guilt since that afternoon in the sixth grade.

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