The Hit Man by T. Coraghessan Boyle, 1980
The magic trick:
Telling a complete biography with vignettes and segments
How do you write a biography in just three-and-a-half pages? This story provides a pretty good template.
There is more than a smidge of Donald Barthelme influence here, as Boyle uses a segmented format with a jumpy non-plot that asks the reader to round off the edges of logical expectation and hang on for the ride. In some ways, stories like that feel like cheats to me. There isn’t a traditional narrative, with scenes giving way to other scenes in a direct way.
And yet, there is a narrative here. The segments catalogue key vignettes of the man’s life. They are darkly comic and just plain dark. It might not be a traditional bio, but by the end we have gotten a complete picture of this man’s life from a very young age to a very old age. And that’s quite a trick on Boyle’s part.
The Hit Man waits in the wings, the white slash of a cigarette scarring the midnight black of his head and upper torso. The makeup girl has done his mouth and eyes, brushed the nap of his hood. He has been briefed. The guest who precedes him is a pediatrician. A planetary glow washes the stage where the host and the pediatrician, separated by a potted palm, cross their legs and discuss the little disturbances of infants and toddlers.
After the station break the Hit Man finds himself squeezed into a director’s chair, white lights in his eyes. The talk-show host is a baby-faced man in his early forties. He smiles like God and all His Angels. Well, he says. So you’re a hit man. Tell me – I’ve always wanted to know – what does it feel like to hit someone?
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