[Reading Room] The Great Interruption by Wendell Berry

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This story was featured in The Best American Short Stories 2019, edited by Anthony Doerr

This story’s full title is The Great Interruption: The Story of A Famous Story of Old Port William and How It Ceased To Be Told (1935-1978). It’s a great example of the benefits of writing a lot, and never trying to sound like anyone else.

The Opening

The style of this short story was a challenge, for me. Its long, complex sentences, so unlike most of what I read these days, slowed me down. In fact, I had to read a page or so, out loud, to get myself into the rhythm of the narrator’s voice.

Even the title was confusing—until I untangled it, when it became intriguing.

It read like Mark Twain, like Charles Dickens: of a time and place that is not mine.

But I knew straight away it was going to be worth it. Here’s how it starts.

Billy Gibbs was as lively a boy, no double, as he could have been made by a strong body, excellent health, an active mind, and an alert sense of humor much like that of his father, Grover Gibbs.

That’s a 45-word, three-line opening sentence. 

But can’t you just hear the voice.

It forces you to settle in, and relax, and understand that you are meeting a raconteur. You won’t need to puzzle things out in this story. You’ll be fed the information you need, just when you need it. 

Take a breath, it says. Relax and let me do the work.

It’s quite unusual in a modern short story.

The Language

I know Wendell Berry primarily from his poetry, which is steeped in the natural world. This story’s main character is a boy steeped in his natural world, and the language the narrator uses, reflects this beautifully.

From the time he grew from the intelligence of a coonhound to that of a fairly biddable border collie, his parents, who were often in need of help, found work for him to do. 

The assumption is that the people hearing this story will understand the difference between a coonhound and a border collie. If we, the readers, don’t, then that tells us something about ourselves. The narrator’s not going to change anything for us!

The Plot Thickens

While the first two page of the story immerse us in the world and the humor of the story [1. Something that warns me this is not going to be flash fiction. It is more immersive than that. I can expect a longer story. In fact, this story is around 5000 words long.] there is a moment near the end of the second page where I sense the ‘real’ story was beginning.

If a gentleman from down at Hargrave wanted to conduct some business strictly private, he could turn his car through that gate, drive a hundred or so feet parallel to the inside of that fencerow, and become almost magically invisible to anybody driving a car or a team and wagon or even walking along the road on the outside.

He could be somewhat less invisible to a boy who would be across the road, fishing in the Blue Hole on Birds Branch…

On first reading, I thought that including all those details (fishing in the Blue Hole on Birds Branch) were just the writer slowing us down, painting a scene. But it turns out that he is telling this story in a particular way for a reason. And for that reason, take a look at the title: The story of a famous story. 

This story is, yes, the story of Billy’s adventure on that day, but it is also the story of a time and a place; of how stories were told and why they were told in that particular way; and how something was lost in the modern era.

But none of that matters yet. 

You’ll read the story of Billy’s adventure and enjoy it, just the way you are meant to.

It’s only when the writer has given you all the fun of hearing the story, and seeing how it spread around the town, that he begins his reflection on the true them of this piece.  

The End

We jump forward in time, after World War II,

…Port William by then was losing its own stories, which were being replaced by the entertainment industry…

…if Billy’s old story were to be told, it would have to stand alone, bereft of the old knowing-in-common that once enriched it…if one of the professionally successful descendants of the place as it once was were to tell it, say, at a cocktail party, it would be understood as an exhibit of the behavior of rural Kentuckians, laughable in all their ways, which the tell her earned much credit by escaping.

The author invited us readers into that world, and showed us the pleasures of hearing the story the way a local would have. That’s why, when he points out what has been lost, it doesn’t feel preachy, and we really feel it. 

Writer’s Notes

There’s nothing to be done about what’s past, of course, but there is plenty for we, as writers, to think about.

We operate in a world that has been, all of lives, taken over by ‘the entertainment industry’.

We have some decisions to make about how we tell our stories.

Who is our audience?  Do we even know who we’re telling our stories for? Are we telling them in a way that feels authentic, or in a way that we think the editor of a particular publication might want it told?

Or do we have the courage, and the confidence in our readers, to tell the story the way it wants to be told? 

Discussion

How much do you think about who will read your story, as you write it? Do you sometimes write for an editor? Do you sometimes write for yourself? For a single person? For an amorphous group of ‘book club ladies’?

How does each type of writing feel to you?

Or do you ignore the idea of an audience all together?

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The Reading Room is a series of posts where I review short stories with a writers’ eye.

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