‘Kid MacArthur’ by Stephanie Vaughn

Kid MacArthur by Stephanie Vaughn, 1984

The magic trick:

Setting up a powerful conclusion by selling the reader on the boy’s pure love during the story’s first half

This is my favorite of the Sweet Talk stories. Oh man, it’s so good.

Whereas yesterday’s feature, “Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog” was a biography of sorts of Gemma’s father, “Kid MacArthur” is a portrait of her brother. She covers a lot of time in this story – about 20 years, from MacArthur’s boyhood to his first few years back from Vietnam. In order to do so in only about 36 pages, she obviously has to select only the most crucial moments for inclusion. She does a remarkable job. Through the few incidents and anecdotes, we are able to get a picture of not only MacArthur but a feeling for the entire generation and the impact felt by the Vietnam War.

We see the way the children’s father talks about his experience in World War II – all heroes and glory. We see the way MacArthur emulates the father, strives to please. And then we see adult MacArthur struggling to put life together, a long way from the hopes and dreams his father held for him 20 years prior. The story puts all those connections in the forefront, but it doesn’t offer any explanations. That part is up to us. Is MacArthur wrecked by Vietnam? Are we seeing the difference winning a war has compared to losing a war? Or are his troubles an inevitable inheritance from an alcoholic father and an unhappy mother? All of the above? Who knows? It’s all there in the story – a whole family’s life – for us to unpack. And that’s quite a trick on Vaughn’s part.

The selection:

His eyes were so still and wide I could see the gold flecks in them. He looked away, looked down at his legs dangling from the counter, and I suddenly felt the solitariness of that rented farmhouse in the Killbuck Valley, the hills and fields hardened under snow, the vegetable gardens rutted with ice. When I stood up to touch his arm, he did not move or speak. He seemed to have escaped from me in an evaporation of heat. Even in my imagination, I could not go where he had gone. All I knew was that somewhere in the jungle had been a boy named Dixon, a boy from Oklahoma, who had grown up on land just like the land my father used to hunt while MacArthur trailed behind with bright-red boxes of homemade ammunition. But now Dixon was a nut who was sent ears through the mail, and MacArthur was unemployed and living alone in the country.

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