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New Yorker Fiction Review: "All You Have to Do" by Sarah Braunstein

Issue: March 16, 2015

Rating: $$

Review: Sarah Braunstein is exactly the kind of author I like to find in the New Yorker Fiction section: young, emerging, and that I've never heard of before. Finding out about new, promising authors is fully 75% of why I started this project in the first place.

"All You Have to Do" is set in a small town in 1972 and deals with an "encounter" between a young teenage boy and a traveling salesman. I use the emphasis quotes there because the real meaning and/or sub-meaning of the encounter are not clear to me even after having read (and skimmed over again) the story and sat on it for a few days.

The kid, Sid Baumwell, is fully inside the gauntlet of adolescence. He's starting to distance himself from his surroundings, his parents, his siblings, in order to try and find out who he really is. He's also working through his desires and what they mean to him; one of the first things we learn about him is that he's "hungry" for everything (mostly food, because he's a teenage boy). But we quickly realize that what he's most hungry for is experience, knowledge, authority, wisdom, things he won't attain for a long, long time.

"All You Have to Do" is not your average "My Kooky Adolescence" story, so don't get worried. Braunstein makes it apparent very early that she's going to be dealing with much deeper and more complex undercurrents than simply her main character's dysfunctional family, because Sid's family isn't really that dysfunctional and Sid -- like most of us -- really isn't that unique. But in a way that's what makes the story so much more interesting: the way Braunstein charts the course of Sid's future, adult life in the otherwise mundane experiences and and feelings of his early adolescence.

In a way, however, the story is too much a miasma of themes and symbols and cross-currents and suggestions. Unless you read it twice, you won't know what to grab onto and what to let go, what's going to come into play and what's not, which, I guess is some of the fun of reading...but in a short story I tend to expect everything to point toward a final conclusion or wrap-up. The only reason this story got two $$ instead of three $$$ was because the main character too easily escapes the story's tension unscathed.

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