Monday, July 01, 2013

The Portable Son by Barrett Hathcock: Mature Work

(Reflection on The Portable Son, stories by Barrett Hathcock. Aqueous Books, 2011.  Full disclosure:  I taught middle grades at the K-12 school where Barrett and his classmates graduated.  He was my student in 8th grade, though my most distinct memory is from an earlier year, when he and two pals commissioned me to compose a piece for them to play on percussion and 15-inch Casio keyboard to honor their favorite science teacher, Mr. Davis.) 

Road past school, to cotton fields, north of Jackson MS
Peter Traxler is adored by his parents, white and middle-class in Jackson Mississippi during the 1990s, educated at a prestigious private school, sent away to college and law school.  In stories by Barrett Hathcock collected in The Portable Son, Peter hits the marks that signify “grown up” to a kid: varsity team, cigarettes, car, girl, job in the big city.  Yet even in his late twenties, he feels stuck in “educationally induced adolescence” (“Reunited” 212). 

Hathcock explores “the geometry of adolescence” (43), by which small things can loom large.  In the many stories when Peter does something stupid, we laugh out loud even while we cringe.  For example, in “Nightswimming,” years of sex education, formal and informal,  bring Peter to the Big Night in such a state of anticipation that there can be no middle ground between triumph and fiasco. 

Other times, the effect is just painful.  In “High Cotton,” Peter and his buddy go diving into some farmer’s bins of cotton, secret fun that develops into a kind of ritual, Peter’s bulwark against insecurities.  When the buddy dishonors that ritual, Peter’s outrage is way out of proportion to the facts, but we get it:

Peter was now shaking, and his fists coiled around Jeremy’s undershirt, just below the soft, hollow indentation of his throat. He yanked him close enough to see the darkness of his mouth, to feel his breath…. In his grip there was a tear – perhaps only a stitch – that sounded to Peter like a distant explosion from somewhere deep inside Jeremy.
“I’m so not kidding, J."
 Jeremy grabbed his things and fled the car, and Peter sped away.  (“High Cotton” 37)

As a former teenage boy myself, I can only say, “Been there, done that.”  Wish I hadn’t been taken back to the moment quite so vividly.

Hathcock’s dialogue can be very funny.   For Peter and his friends, the search for words to express complicated feelings always vies with the imperative to be cool.  They don’t want to give away too much.  Sometimes poor Peter can’t say more than, “It’s complicated.” When a guy repeats, “I know what you mean… I know what you mean… I know what you mean,” he doesn’t get it (189).   When a cheerleader asks Peter about his prom date, they circle each other in the pat phrases of relationship-speak:
                “Oh.  Are y’all back together?”
                “No. We’re just friends.”

                “Uh-huh. So do you still like her?”
                “What?  No.  I said we’re just friends.”
                “Mhmm.  Does she like you?”

                “Who’s keeping you just friends?  Is it you or her?
                “I think we’re both – I’m sorry, what?”

                                                (“Popular Baggage,” 139)

But Hathcock doesn’t let the parents’ generation off easy, either.   An aunt and uncle chatter at cross-purposes in “Pater Noster,” and we laugh in “Nightswimming” when Peter’s father works himself into a rhetorical pretzel pontificating about girls, condoms, and the best years of a boy’s life. 

Hathcock’s prose is a pleasure in itself.  Description draws us into experiences we won’t forget, of diving into cotton at sunset in autumn, the hypnotic rhythm of cutting cords of wood, washing his uncle’s sore feet, and Peter’s slow dance with a bereaved mother.  The reader will appreciate apt turns of phrase such as a reference to “the laced apprehension that Peter’s mother’s questions have” (193), and a description of an old-style house that looks like it might “go all rhombus and bust” (216).

Hathcock plays with motifs to tie episodes together.  In the story of a piano teacher’s son, “Every Good Boy Does Fine,” there’s a “whole rest” before a tense conversation “slants into minor”(188).

A motif in the story "Reunited" resonates with the entire collection: the blurry sonogram of a son developing in the womb.  Peter wonders, “What if it took a birth to force out the man” (212)?   The young father, Peter’s old friend …

…has grown out of his boyhood fatness and now has an appealing ranginess to his arms and legs, his elbows and shoulders and knees somehow more defined.

Seeing this, Peter thinks that “he is being surpassed by his friends” (214). 

It’s been said that a son won’t feel grown up until the death of his father, an idea explored in “Pater Noster” and the book’s title story.  Flying home from D.C. for his dad’s funeral, Peter does a good job of being the responsible grown up, taking care of his uncle and his mother.  Still, even four years later, he’s moody and resentful of classmates whose lives seem more settled than his.  Exasperated, a friend says, “Ah, Jesus, Peter, don’t pin this on your father, okay? …How long are you going to hold on to this” (206)?  

In the title story, in one of the most poignant moments of the collection, Hathcock gives us a clue to what Peter’s missing.  That’s the fact that no one is grown up in the way that Peter imagines grown up to be.  We catch sight of many middle aged people in other stories, and they are needy, or pretentious, or, when watched like TV through a kitchen window, dreary (165).  He may envy his classmates, but we learn in other stories that two are already in marriage counseling, and one has been parking cars for a living.  But Peter’s idea of “grown up” is something else: It’s arriving at the old hometown airport…

…his look tired, sweaty, triumphant.  He imagined his father asking how his day was, asking if he missed anything important by cutting out early, asking what Peter might have to do to make it up, and then Peter’s practiced, nonchalant answer, “Nothing I can’t handle,” and his father’s knowing, male laugh (“The Portable Son” 101).

He will never grow up, so long as that means hearing, from the only man who could say it, that he lived up to his father’s expectations. 

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