Skip to main content

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.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

New Yorker Fiction Review #151: "The Bog Girl" by Karen Russell

From the June 20 issue...

My loyal readers (if there are still any, which I doubt) will know I'm usually not a fan of Magical Realism, which, as you may also know, is Karen Russell's stock in trade. That said, there's nothing I love more than having my antipathy for magical realism shattered by an awesome story like "The Bog Girl."

Briefly, an Irish teenager discovers the body of a young woman who as been buried in a bog for over 2,000 years and begins to date her. What more do you need, right? If I'd read that one-line description somewhere else, and wasn't on a mission to review every New Yorker short story, I doubt I'd have read "The Bog Girl." But maybe I should start doing a George Costanza and do the opposite of everything I think I should do.

Where Russell succeeds here is in two main areas: 1.) Making us really love Cillian, the teenager who falls in love with the bog girl, and 2.) pulling the unbelievable trick making the characters…

Holiday Q&A, Volume 1

These questions come to us from Grace. Thanks for sending your questions!! Answers below:
What is the most thrilling mystery you have read and/or watched?
The Eiger Sanction (book and film) by Trevanian is what's coming to mind. International espionage. Mountain-climbing assassins. Evil albino masterminds. Sex. Not a bad combination. Warning, this is completely a "guy" movie, and the film (feat. Clint Eastwood) is priceless 70s action movie cheese. But in case that's your thing...
What's the deal with Narcos?
Narcos is a Netflix show about the rise and fall (but mostly the fall) of Columbian cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar. Thus far there are two seasons of 10 episodes each. RIYL: The film Blow, starring Johnny Depp; the book Zombie City, by Thomas Katz; the movie Goodfellas; true crime; anything involving the drug trade. My brief review: Season 1 started out a bit slow and I know a bunch of people who never made it past the first few episodes. Some of the acting is a…

A Piece of Advice I Learned From My Grandfather

My grandfather was one of the most learned men I know. He read widely and voraciously, and not just in the sciences (he was a doctor); he loved politics, philosophy, and great literature as well. Whenever he finished a book he would write his thoughts about the book in the front cover and then sign and date it. To this day every once in a while I will open a book from my bookshelf or my mother's bookshelf, or at one of my family members' homes, and there will be my grandfather's handwriting. He was also a great giver of his books; if you remarked that you liked a particular one or wanted to read it, you were almost sure to take it home with you.

Reading is a very solitary pursuit but my grandfather was not a solitary person. He relished having family and friends around him which is convenient because he was blessed with a lot of both. And he carried out his intellectual life in a very "public" way as well. He was, in some ways, an intellectual evangelist. If he r…