Coney Island by Ann Beattie, 1983
The magic trick:
Burying the story’s theme in one paragraph in the middle of the story
Many of the stories in Beattie’s Where You’ll Find Me collection use a similar trick, evidenced nicely in “Coney Island.” They are little tunnels. They move you along through a scene or two, maybe a conversation, with no indication as to what the title means or what the story’s theme is. Then, boom, in a single, poignant reference, the title and theme become clear.
Sometimes it works and the poetry connects. Sometimes it feels forced and thin. It’s an interesting technique, regardless.
In “Coney Island,” the illumination comes near the end of the story when Drew recalls a date he had with his ex at the amusement park. There is a metaphor in there about a shooting gallery, calling into question Drew’s approach to relationships and life, as well as the quality of parenting he received. I’m not sure how perfectly it all fits together, but it certainly opens the reader up to a lot more possible meanings outside of the relatively small conversation at the core of the story. And that’s quite a trick on Beattie’s part.
“O.K.,” Drew says. “Charlotte and I went to Coney Island. Got on those rides that tilt you every which way, and what do you call that thing with the glass sides that goes up the pole so you can look out – “
“I’ve never been to Coney Island,” Chester says.
“I was showing her my style,” Drew says. “The best part was later. This guy in the shooting gallery clips the cardboard card with the star on it to the string, sends it down to the end of the line, and I start blasting. Did it three or four times, and there was always some tiny part of the blue left. The pinpoint of the tip of one triangle. The middle of the target was this blue star. I was such a great shot that I was trying to win by shooting out the star, and the guy finally said to me, ‘Man, you’re trying to blast that star away. What you do is shoot around it, and the star falls out.” Drew looks at Chester through the circle of his thumb and first finger, drops his hand to the table. “What you’re supposed to do is go around it, like slipping a knife around a cake pan to get the cake out.” Drew takes a sip of his drink. He says, “My father never taught me anything.”
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