I’ve spent a lot more time over the last year reminiscing about my past than I probably have in the last three decades of my life. I’ve never been quite sure why that is–probably the rapidly approaching sixtieth birthday–but it’s been interesting; trying to remember things, looking things up on-line to verify memories, listening to music from those various periods, and remembering things of social and historical and cultural importance, which were at the time primarily just background noise.
Some of it is undoubtedly because I had to mine my memories for the two books I wrote over the last year–Bury Me in Shadows (Alabama) and #shedeservedit (Kansas)–and the creation of fictional places based on real places where I lived (often forgetting that since I was fictionalizing them, I could change things and they didn’t have to be exact–which was helpful while realizing my memories were often incorrect!). I’ve mined my memories for work before–mostly short stories, really–but never to the extent that I had to for those two books.
And now that I think about it, that probably has more to do with these frequent trips down Memory Lane than the milestone birthday approaching.
I’ve been meaning to start reading short stories again lately; I’ve really fallen off on the Short Story Project over the last year, but today I decided to read “The Boy Detective and The Summer of ’74”, by Art Taylor, which has been nominated for a ridiculous amount of awards–as Art’s work so frequently is.
And what a jewel of a short story it is.
That summer, the summer of 1974, all the boys in the neighborhood wanted to be Evel Knievel–John especially, who’d gotten a brand new bike with chopper-style handles for his birthday. He and his younger brother Paul and I, like a brother myself, raced constantly around the hot asphalt of the small block where we lived. We built rough ramps out of old bricks and leftover plywood, jumped Tonka toys, a rusty wagon, a battered Big Wheel.
Other times, we tried to be like the Six Million Dollar Man, sprinting from yard to yard, mimicking with our lips that metallic reverb that meant we’d engaged our bionic powers. We liked Kwai Chang Caine from the Kung Fu show too, and Paul sometimes thrashed his arms in karate chops as we wandered into the woods and fields behind our neighborhood–land that my father owned and that he was waiting to develop, same as he had built each of the nine houses that made up our small corner of that North Carolina town.
Turns out that while we aspired to be Evel Knievel or Kwan Chang Caine or the Six Million Dollar Man, my father had his own ambitions for me–that was another thing about that summer.
But one dream was mine alone. Secretly, I wanted to be Encyclopedia Brown. And the summer of ’74 offered the chance for that dream to come true.
We founds the first bone about midmorning one day in late June….
Art Taylor is an exceptional short story writer. Every time I read one of his short stories, his skill–constructing beautiful sentences, creating amazing images, the structure of the story and the strength of the voice–consistently blows me away. He never tells the same story twice, or falls back into the ease of reusing a voice he has used before, either.
Reading this story took me back to my summers as a child in Alabama. I could hear the cicadas and crickets and tree frogs, feel the heavy wet air, smell the freshly mown grass; I could remember the innocence and how it felt to want to be like the characters in the mystery stories I loved to read–whether it was Encyclopedia Brown or The Three Investigators or Trixie Belden, hoping to stumble over a mystery that I would be able to solve through my sharp observations and my deductive reasoning, stunning the adults by my intelligence, savvy and acumen. He also manages, in this story, to evoke that childlike sense of innocence, of noticing weird things adults do while not completely comprehending what they mean, and while this is obviously told as a flashback story–an adult man remembering something from his childhood, it’s not done in an obvious way; and I also like the choice to not tell it in the young boy’s voice–which is a difficult balancing act and one that is very difficult to do.
I love this story so much, can you tell?
And as always, with great writers, reading this story unlocked the key to a long-dormant story that I’ve never been able to solve the problem with–so I can now dust it off and finally get it finished.
Seriously–do yourself a favor and track down Art Taylor’s short stories. You can thank me later.