Fat Books & Thin Women

Story Sunday: Dennis Lehane’s “Until Gwen”
August 14, 2011, 8:15 am
Filed under: Story Sundays | Tags: , , , , ,

Story Sundays is a weekly feature at Fat Books & Thin Women. Always short stories, always ones available online for free.

To get this out of the way early, I’m not sure that Dennis Lehane can do any wrong. I’ve yet to read a word by the man that doesn’t have some truth to it, and he brings the best of literary writing to crime fiction. As my mother said after she finished Gone, Baby, Gone, “I’m never going to be able to go back to John Grisham.” That’s who Dennis Lehane is: the writer who ruins you for other writers.

“Until Gwen” was published in a 2004 issue of The Atlantic. The story, of a man picked up by his father after four years in prison, is told in the second person. Lehane crushes this, of course, and instead of feeling stilted like so many stories do when told out of the typical first- or third-person, Lehane’s story feels more immediate because of his narrative technique. Just check out the story’s first line:

Your father picks you up from prison in a stolen Dodge Neon, with an 8-ball of coke in the glove compartment and a hooker named Mandy in the back seat.

Lehane’s narrator is something of an enigma, the effect heightened by turning the reader into a sort of dual narrator. This is a man without a name, without a history beyond the failed robbery that led to his imprisonment and the day of and following his release from jail. This is a man who doesn’t know where he was born, what his date of birth is, who doesn’t have a social security number, who doesn’t know much other than that he loves this woman, Gwen, who was with him the night of the robbery.

Now that you’ve been in prison, you’ve been documented, but even they’d had to make it up, take your name as much on faith as you. You have no Social Security number or birth certificate, no passport. You’ve never held a job.

Gwen said to you once, “You don’t have anyone to tell you who you are, so you don’t need anyone to tell you. You just are who you are. You’re beautiful.”

And with Gwen that was usually enough. You didn’t need to be defined —by your father, your mother, a place of birth, a name on a credit card or a driver’s license or the upper left corner of a check. As long as her definition of you was something she could live with, then you could too.

The narrator’s father is more interested in recovering the stolen diamond, hidden by the narrator, than even the narrator is, and Lehane’s skill at showing the lowest rungs of humanity, at giving these people a weight and heft that sometimes occasions sympathy, is his greatest skill as a writer. If you haven’t read Lehane before, “Until Gwen” will probably be enough to have you running to the store to pick up all his books. If you have, well, the story is a good reminder of what the man can do, the sort of singular characters he can create.

Read “Until Gwen” online

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