Topicality can kill otherwise good fiction. Politics, current events, new technologies might make a story seem immediate and important, but can also quickly date it, making it seem naive or, worse, irrelevant. Then there’s the danger of didacticism. Essays barely concealed beneath a layer of drama turn vibrant prose into the dullest of lectures, contrived to fit within a narrative, not a logical part of it.
It’s interesting to see when it’s done well and successfully. I can offer the recent “Desert Boys” by Chris McCormick as an example. McCormick’s volume of linked stories describes the youth and young manhood of Daley Kushner in Antelope Valley, an arid part of California just north of Los Angeles.
“Antelope Valley is not the California most people imagine,” McCormick writes. “This could be a good thing, but almost never is. Instead, it’s a point of pride, which is almost always claimed by people who are proud of the wrong things.”
It’s culturally conservative and racially monotone. Sentiment against Muslims is openly expressed and the downtown area sees the occasional rally against immigration. The high school mascot is a Confederate rebel.
Into this comes young Daley Kushner. His mother is from Armenia, and even though he hasn’t inherited her dark complexion, he’s sensitive to the anti-immigrant attitude hanging in the dry air of Antelope Valley. He’s also gay in a place where most people just would rather not know about it.
The book opens with the powerful “Mother, Godfather, Baby, Priest.” At about 40 pages, it’s also refreshingly long for a short story. Daley and his two best friends, Karinger and Watts, (they call each other by their last names — Daley is Kush — military style) play at war, as boys are wont to do, in this case with paintball guns in the desert. In addition to the natural rivalries of a male triumvirate – who’s tougher, who’s a better shot, who’s the better friend to whom — Daley is in love with Karinger. As usual, that complicates matters.
Instead of applying to college, Karinger enlists in the Marines. This is just after 9/11 and the country thrums with fear and anger. The Iraq war is gearing up, but Daley considers the impending invasion illegal. As Karinger’s deployment nears, Daley becomes more and more vocal about his opposition to the war.
There’s a confrontation between Daley and Karinger. Beneath Daley’s anti-war stance stews frustration and anger over his inability to express the love he feels for his best friend. We get the sense that Daley might not care so much about the Iraq invasion if he didn’t love Karinger. Opposing it allows him to at least provoke some kind of strong emotion from Karinger, even if it’s not the one he desires. He can’t have love, so he’ll go for hate instead. It’s a perfect blend of the personal and the political that feels right and appropriate to the story and the characters.
“Mother, Godfather, Baby Priest” is only one example. McCormick infuses almost all his stories with personal struggle against a backdrop of wider political and cultural forces. It’s never didactic and grants them a deep, meaningful resonance.