by Rachel Kolman
In a genre that emphasizes word count, close reading flash fiction can be a wonderful teacher. Intentionally slowing down one’s eye to consider carefully each word and phrase makes us even more aware of how we can achieve the desired effect in our own work. And then, of course, all of these beautiful words need to add up to something – mean something. In “Another Night In a Fucking Boring Pennsylvania Suburb,” Kevin Richard White turns less than 300 words into a statement about suburban weariness, American identities, and prejudice through precise word choice and a humorous tone. His story merits a closer look, and maybe I, the flash writer, can learn how to use these strategies in my own work.
The first two sentences of this piece do a lot of heavy lifting to establish the setting and conflict. “I’m in my local Chinese place” tells me how common, routine, and mundane this experience is. The “ten year old” reveals a lot about the owners, and “running register” is just a really crisp, active, and alliterative phrase (rather than “is sitting behind the register”). The second sentence—“A drunk guy is asking for more duck sauce”—introduces the conflict of the story. The situation is made tense through the “is asking” form of the verb; the action is happening as we enter the story, and we are watching along like our narrator.
Ah yes, our narrator. We are introduced to him in the third sentence: “I’m three vodkas in myself.” The narrator’s either 1) drinking three vodkas at the restaurant or 2) showing up drunk on three vodkas reinforces what the title suggests: this is just another night to get through, to numb with some vodka and pepper steak. It provides some backstory and context. Also, it shows some commonality between the narrator and our antagonist. In the suburbs, everyone drinks to make it through.
In the next paragraph, we see the scene unfold with specific, concrete details: the drunk guy’s Stetson hat, the crispy noodles, the “hard blur of hair and grease.” This last detail is exquisite here, as there’s something fresh about a blur being described as “hard.” To me, it reinforces the drunkenness of the narrator. I like this strategy for flash: I can describe something as “a delicate punch” or “a deliberate slip” as a way to surprise the reader with a fresh, almost opposing description. It suggests conflict, perhaps an internal one.
At the end of this paragraph, the narrator leans heavy into a stereotype of the drunk guy, a technique which starts to reveal some of the heart of this story: “I think he’s going to lasso me or ask me to come over and polish off a bag of pork rinds.” The words “lasso” and “pork rinds” are funny, and often, humorous writing is allowed to get away with stereotype in service to a larger social commentary. It also sets up the stereotype the drunk guy will express in the next line as he looks over at the narrator: “I bet you have duck sauce.” On a lazy night in the suburbs, the judgments are just as lazy. The conflict deepens. In response, the narrator toys with him, too apathetic to care – “and how!” This apathy is reinforced at the end of the next paragraph, after the narrator wonders briefly if the drunk guy ordered anything, and then thinks, “I guess it doesn’t really matter.” There will always be drunk guys in Stetson hats wanting a handout that they feel they’re owed, pushing racist stereotypes onto those around them.
This is also when the story starts including a bit more internal thought from the narrator. It seems as the conflict deepens, so does the thoughtfulness of the narrator. (I like this as a writing strategy – external conflict leading to internal conflict.) “I’m not sure what his deal was,” the narrator considers. Only for a moment, and then, lazily and apathetically, relies on a joke, stereotype answer: “Maybe his TNT subscription got canceled and he needed someone to fuck with.” Though the narrator seems to brush it aside with humor, it’s enough of a disturbance from mundanity that the he feels like he should say something to the Chinese family. After all, this is his place, so maybe he wants to apologize for the racist jerk who interrupted their night. Maybe he wants to finally do something. But the family is gone, likely off in the back preparing food, the drunk guy forgotten. There will be another one tomorrow. This feeling is reinforced in the final line “I’m stuck…with nowhere else to go.” And now, apathy is not just a symptom of the suburbs, but a coping mechanism: apathy allows the narrator to survive this town. This quiet inclusion of a deep conflict is very fitting for a story not incredibly heavy with conflict or action. I love this quiet inclusion as a writing strategy. Questioning the universe through the tiniest detail is what flash is about.
The one odd craft thing to note about this piece is how halfway through, White switches from present tense to past. It happens with the line, “I watched him from the window.” This seems like an intentional switch, and I can only surmise that since the drunk guy has left the restaurant, the immediacy of the scene is now gone. I’m not sure that this is a strategy I would borrow, but it is interestingly used here to deflate the conflict, and I’m always a fan of writers who break conventional writing rules and get away with it.
These devices are all incredibly powerful for the flash writer. To be able to move through a simple scene with clear, interesting word choices; to use action to reveal the conflict, setting, complications, and desire; to use stereotype to introduce humor and make a larger social commentary; to get to the heart of a larger conflict; to get the reader thinking after the story is over – all of these I can use to create one heck of a flash story. And so can you.