The Gift Of The Prodigal by Peter Taylor, 1981
The magic trick:
Introducing Ricky with something like a father’s admiration only to quickly contrast it with a darker, more negative report
The opening section of this story is almost nauseating. The old man who narrates the story goes on an on about how dashing his son appears to be as he pulls up in his sports car. Of course, we soon understand that the relationship is far more complicated than straight-line admiration. The son, in fact, has been nothing but a nuisance and an embarrassment to the family. That surprise contrast would be magic trick enough, but Taylor is up something even larger with this setup.
Having finished the story I went back and reread that opening description of Ricky’s arrival. It is clear that the contrast Taylor sets up isn’t an either-or feeling by the father toward his son; it’s a both. At first, we’re surprised when the narrator’s positive portrayal of Ricky in the introduction is contradicted. But that’s not right. That’s not what happens. The positive portrayal is never contradicted. The father does feel admiration, if not downright hero worship, for his son. The faults, the mistakes, the “scrapes,’ as he calls them – they’re strikes against Ricky and reasons for the admiration at the same time.
Like an episode of Columbo, we see the murder in the first scene. We see the father’s true feelings for his son in this introduction. We spend the rest of the story – like watching Columbo piece together the clues – understanding why the father feels the way he does. And that’s quite a trick on Taylor’s part.
There’s Ricky down in the washed river gravel of my driveway. I had my yardman out raking it before 7 a.m. – the driveway. It looks nearly perfect. Ricky also looks nearly perfect down there. He looks extremely got up and cleaned up, as though he had been carefully raked over and smoothed out.