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New Yorker Fiction Review #173: "Tiny Man" by Sam Shepard

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Review of a short story from the Dec. 5, 2016 issue of The New Yorker...

Good thing that short stories -- unlike the news -- don't get old, because I'm way, way behind once again. At five months behind, probably the farthest behind I've ever been on my New Yorker short story reviewing. But stories like "Tiny Man," by Sam Shepard, make me glad I keep doing this.

Based on the story's opening, I thought this was going to be magic realism, which I'm not a super huge fan of. But as it progressed, it turned into a finely-crafted meditation on fathers and sons, adolescence, love, lust, and even forgiveness. Sam Shepard is a playwright (as well as an actor, whom you might remember from The Right Stuff or The Pelican Brief) and while I don't usually look for great prose fiction from playwrights, the writing in "Tiny Man" -- the craftsmanship -- is to me what makes this short story unique and memorable.

The short story takes place in two rotating "modes" -- one in which a middle-aged man has been delivered the body of his dead father, shrunken to the size of an action figure and wrapped in saran wrap, the other in which the middle-aged man thinks back to an era during his adolescence in which his father had an affair with a local teenaged girl named Felicity and was sent to jail for it, and returned.

The boy's father is a mystery to him. He's a silent, distant, man's-man type, probably a veteran of either World War II or the Korean War, who spends his life on the fringes of society, working itinerant jobs and mostly spending his off-hours sitting on the porch drinking and staring aimlessly into the woods.

Naturally, when the boy finds out about his father's affair with Felicity, he's curious, and can't possibly realize how inappropriate it all his, thinking that the 15 year old Felicity is a woman because he himself is a few years younger (he later loses his virginity to her when he comes home and finds her waiting for his dad).

To me the "shrunken father" motif in this story clearly represents the reality that we all face as we get older, and if we're lucky enough to age -- along with our fathers -- long enough to see it happen: our fathers shrink from their status in our minds as giants to merely men, and then old men. And in the case of this story's narrator: tiny men.

There is also a very delicate "theme" in this story, that becomes apparent in something the father says (or rather, that Felicity quotes the father as having said). Felicity and the son are talking in the kitchen and they are discussing the fact that the father rarely talks:

"Once...he talked about disappearing--how everything was disappearing. How there used to be bonfires everywhere, people running with torches. Laughing. The night was full of sparks. Songs. Llittle children running and screaming with glee. People in love would jump across the snapping flames, hand in hand. Flames would shoot straight up to the stars."

Here, I feel like Sam Shepard is hinting at what this story is really "about": the loss of innocence, at an individual and at a broader level. It's odd to think of someone as quiet as the boy's father coming up with something this poetic, but somehow it also fits.

This is a great short story. Why? Because I enjoyed reading it in the moment, and it also left me some things to think about. Like floating puzzle pieces, it will take a while for the pieces to all fit together properly, but it's worth thinking about and absolutely worth a re-read.


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