Short story review from: The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction – “First, Body” by Melanie Rae Thon


“First, Body”
Melanie Rae Thon

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Sid Elliott is a Viet Nam War vet, back home with a humiliating shrapnel injury and additional damage much deeper than his wound. Now he’s a hospital orderly, recently transferred from the Emergency Room to the morgue, a lateral transfer, he’s told, but he knows it’s because he jumped in to help an ER patient, to prevent her from banging her head on the wall. Sid had overstepped.

Newly sober, Sid meets Roxanne, a sickly-thin, scarred and aimless alcoholic and drug addict. His large size is in direct contrast to Roxanne, yet he feels lost in her smallness. This story is about Sid trying to cope with all things. His father is dead. He visits his mother, but their relationship is flat. What he has with Roxanne is more of a desperate grasping, often ugly, sometimes tender.

Sid thinks about the doctors in the ER, how they treat the bodies, but not the souls. And if they can’t save the bodies, they harvest what they can. The doctors discuss this, laughing, removed from their patients and, Sid thinks, they don’t allow these people their dignity.

When Sid is told to transfer Gloria Luby, a grossly immense dead woman, to the examining table, he thinks this is his chance to show respect, to treat her as the person she was only hours earlier. The doctor is grimly flippant with his orders: “Shove her up there on the slab any way you can.” He adds, “You’ll have to roll this one. She won’t mind.”

The transfer results in disaster and a physical and personal crisis for Sid. His foolish attempt leaves him both hurt and haunted by ugliness of the war and his personal relationships at home.

I tend to prefer more upbeat stories, but this one got to me. It’s not a pretty story, but Sid’s character is so well-defined, that I still view him as a hero, despite his failure. And I’m left with the feeling of wanting to help him.

Melanie Rae Thon is an American writer of fiction, both short stories and novels. She is a professor of English at the University of Utah. Here is her biography as it appears on the University of Utah faculty website here.

Biography: Melanie Rae Thon’s most recent books are the novel  The Voice of the River  and  In This Light: New and Selected Stories.  She is also the author of the novels  Sweet HeartsMeteors in August,  and  Iona Moon,  and the story collections  First, Body  and  Girls in the Grass.  Thon’s work has been included in  Best American Short Stories  (1995, 1996),  three  Pushcart Prize Anthologies  (2003, 2006, 2008),  and  O. Henry Prize Stories  (2006).  She is a recipient of a Whiting Writer’s Award (1997),  two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts  (1992 and 2008),  a Writer’s Residency from the Lannan Foundation  (2005),  and a fellowship from the Tanner Humanities Center  (2009).  Thon’s fiction has been translated into French, Italian, German, Spanish, Croatian, Finnish, Japanese, Arabic, and Farsi.  Originally from Montana, Thon now lives in Salt Lake City, where she teaches in the Creative Writing and Environmental Humanities programs at the University of Utah.

You can find more information about Thon here and here.

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The Ha Ha by Dave King

the ha ha picThe Ha Ha
Dave King


The Ha Ha is an excellent novel about a Viet Nam vet with a severe brain injury, leaving him unable to speak. Thirty years after returning from Viet Nam, Howard Kapostash suddenly finds himself taking care of 9-year-old Ryan, whose mother Sylvia (Howard’s high school girlfriend) is in rehab for a cocaine addiction. Howard is middle-aged. His parents are dead. He lives in the house he grew up in with a detached group of boarders. Laurel, the only female, is a 30-something owner of a small gourmet soup business and helps Howard maintain the house. Two 30ish house painters, Steve and Harrison are new boarders.

Written through Howard’s viewpoint, this is a story of how Ryan comes to be the force that joins these people together, how Howard struggles to care for Ryan and how all the characters assume new roles. Howard’s actions are often well-meant, but several are based on terrible judgment and lead to bad results, leaving Howard unable to explain himself.

Howard is the kind of character you like despite his flaws and poor decisions. I was cheering for him all along. As Sylvia’s rehab continues, despite two disastrous visits, Howard imagines a new life with Sylvia and Ryan. All hopes unravel upon Sylvia’s return and Howard begins a downward and destructive spiral. These actions and the nagging question of why Howard never tried to learn sign language or another form of communication create a range of emotions in the reader. Anger for acting foolishly, for not caring enough to learn how to communicate, disgust for wallowing in drugs for years after his injury. Love for how much he cares about Ryan and how he steps up to the challenge.

The ending allows the reader to imagine the future and I still find myself wondering how Howard is doing.

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