Comparing Writing to Anything Else Is a Bad Idea:
A Review of Kevin Moffett’s Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events
By: Eric Parker
Kevin Moffett is a writer and life-long skateboarder, yet his newest collection of short stories, Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events, doesn’t contain one story about skateboarding. Though skateboards are absent from the stories, the art and craft of skateboarding is present.
Skateboarding, like fiction writing, comes in two main forms: 1) vert skating, on ramps and in pools, and 2) street skating. Not unlike the novel, there was a time in skateboarding’s history when one had to ride vert well in order to be taken seriously. And though the short story––like street skating––has existed since the early days of the sport, it’s finding new life and legitimacy in books such as Moffett’s second collection. (His first collection, Permanent Visitors, is also amazing.) The days of novel-writing-to-be-legit, he seems to say, are over. Street skating and short stories are here to stay, and I will dominate at least one: the short story.
In the title story (which originally appeared in McSweeney’s and was reprinted in Best American Short Stories 2010), Moffett, in a move reminiscent of the film Adaptation, lays out all the rules professors tell writers in workshops––“Never dramatize a dream; Never use more than one exclamation point per story . . . Never write about writing, and Never dramatize phone conversations”––and breaks them all to great effect. There are dramatized dreams and phone conversations (and exclamation points) and distance, both metaphorical and literal, between a father and his son, who both interpret through their writing (which becomes competitive) the real-life suffering they experienced after the mother’s death and the father’s remarrying, leading to what the fictional writing professor Hodgett would call the octane of the epiphany. If all this sounds serious, it’s not. Moffett is the master of the unexpected moment, and you often find yourself laughing out loud alone, unless you’re not alone; then you’ll share the passage with whoever is around.
As the reader moves through the collection, it becomes apparent that Moffett knows the “rules” of what makes a good story: “Imagine a time for your characters, Hodgett used to say, when things may have turned out differently. Find the moment a choice was made that made other choices impossible. Readers like to see characters making choices.” The stories contain characters making such choices, from a son who must decide whether to stay with a dying father or take a planned month-long trip to Italy (“Buzzers”) to an immigrant who must decide whether to retrieve an accidentally swallowed golden tooth crown from his feces and have a doctor reinstall it or allow the woman he crushes on at work to raise funds to buy a new one, saving some of his dignity (“Border to Border”). Yep.
Another aspect of skateboarding that appears in Moffett’s work is the obsessive nature of perfection. A skateboarder will spend all afternoon trying the same trick over and over until he lands it. And then he’ll continue doing the trick until he perfects it and can do it at will. Moffett’s sentences and paragraphs are so clean and full of life, the pacing so right on, with scenes so absurdly real, that you know he obsesses over every word and scene. And like a great skateboarder, he performs the most difficult moves flawlessly, making them look deceptively easy.
In the build-up to a great trick in skateboarding during a “run,” a skater will often perform a “line,” a serious of smaller tricks back-to-back, and then nail you with the big move. Moffett has a way of creating “lines” in his work through rapid-fire listings full of pleasant surprises. For instance, in the title story, the main character reads the first line of his dad’s published story, “As a boy, I always dreamed of flight,” and follows it with, “That makes two of us, I thought. To the circus, To Tibet, to live with a nice family of Moonies.” Moonies? Yes. Later, he’ll drop one of those passages that makes you reach for your pen to mark it: “Tad thought, Right here, this moment, no before, no after. He couldn’t recall where he’d heard it. It was either from a philosophy book or an aerobics video. He felt a fierce contentment. He wished there was a way to ration it out to make it last longer. But there was no way. It ignited, it burned up, it was gone” (“First Marriage”).
If you’ve ever spent time in a car with a skateboarder, you’ll see their eyes scanning the landscape, paying attention to every detail, assessing what objects in the world are skateable. Moffett takes this skill and applies it to his writing, where the littlest descriptive detail never escapes him: “Their faces remind him of expensive bicycles left unlocked”; “Together the televisions made a sound like the brown smear of overmixed paints”; “He lifted the collar of his shirt and smelled it. It smelled like shirt.”
Similar to tricks in skateboarding, these literary devices risk being that, tricks, unless done with style. In the mid-to-late 1990s, there was a vert skateboarder by the name of Andy McDonald, who performed a variety of difficult technical moves but had no natural style. He was mechanical, performing his tricks just above the ramp’s lip instead of high up in the air. He won contests, but many skateboarders detested him. As people say, style can’t be taught. The same goes with writing, and Moffett’s quiet, smooth style, full of comedy and deft moves, difficult decisions and sad realities for his characters, makes each story a place you want to inhabit.
When I reached the end of the collection, which finishes with the wonderful story “One Dog Year” (published in Tin House and reprinted in Best American Short Stories 2009), featuring an elderly John D. Rockefeller dispensing dimes and dreaming of flight, I felt disappointed because I wanted another run, a new Moffett world in which to dwell. I closed the book, reopened the cover, and began rereading, studying the moves the way I would watch a great skateboarder’s video part again and again.