- Blood Relations
When one sets about doing harm, the people most likely to be hurt are the ones across the table, if only by reason of proximity. Look up quotes on the word "family," and much of what comes up is either sarcastic or humorous. Hamlet's stepfather says to him, "My cousin Hamlet, and my son," and the young prince responds, "A little more than kin, and less than kind," with both "kin" and "kind" carrying multiple levels of dark irony. This is the norm even when your stepfather/uncle didn't murder your father and marry your mother. Bring up the issue of relatives, and mockery soon follows. "I had no blood relatives until I made some," says comedian Andy Dick. And yet of course the other feelings continue to survive alongside the sarcasm—the fondness, love and hope that we associate with both our relatives and our origins.
This issue is about both sides of the coin of family. Our Jeffrey E. Smith winner in fiction is Yuko Sakata's "Unintended," a story that shows the effects of parents' problems on a child. The protagonist, Shinji, has recently separated from his wife and, needing a place to stay, goes to live for a while with his cousin. There he discovers that the cousin's teenaged son, Kazuo, is troubled and recently had an unexplained spell of amnesia and hyper-somnia. Shinji develops a rapport with Kazuo, who talks with him about accidental or "unintended" places where people can leave what they want to discard. When Shinji learns the secret about Kazuo's parents, he understands that the boy has coped with their situation by developing a ritual of displacement. The story is a real and compelling and extraordinarily intimate portrait of complex adolescent psychology. [End Page 5]
Jessica Francis Kane's "The Essentials of Acceleration" describes a middle-aged woman who has never escaped the gravitational pull of her father. The narrator of this precisely written story is Holly Levering, a forty-year-old spinster who lives with her aging father as both continue to grieve the death of Holly's mother in a car accident many years earlier. While Holly's father has reacted to the death by finding creative outlets, including gardening, and has developed friendly relationships with the housewives in their neighborhood, Holly has embraced isolation, distancing herself from people, becoming compulsively skillful at driving and limiting her emotional involvement even with her father.
Thomas Pierce's "Grasshopper Kings" describes a warmer relationship between the generations. Flynn, a former drinker, works at a substance-abuse facility. Trying to help his son, Ryan, who is developing a taste for pyromania, he accompanies him to camp with the Grasshoppers, a Boy Scout-like group. Flynn has to ask an attorney acquaintance to bend the rules to get permission for Ryan and him to attend, since Ryan is not yet a member of this exclusive group. As father and son participate in the camp's activities, which involve learning secret "truths," Flynn discovers that the Grasshoppers are all too much like the adult world. Certain people are more successful than others because they are better at gaining entry into the right circles, an ability he lacks, which finally in some way unites him with his son.
This year's Smith Prize-winning essay is Peter Selgin's wonderful memoir "The Kuhreihen Melody," which describes going back to Bethel, Connecticut, where Selgin grew up in the 1960s. He tours the town with his elderly, widowed mother, fulfilling a dream he's had for years of returning to his home and his history. The essay vividly and lyrically recollects a town, its houses and businesses and the people who lived there, at the same time exploring the author's admittedly peculiar and perhaps self-defeating fascination with his own past.
"Leftovers, 1993" is Dave Zoby's comic memoir of a clash with his engineer father in the '90s, when he was living the graduate student life of irresponsibility and self-indulgence. The essay describes an epic battle the two had over a Thanksgiving turkey that Dave was supposed to cook and that his father, based on long...