‘The Ant Of The Self’ by ZZ Packer

The Ant Of The Self by ZZ Packer, 2002

The magic trick:

Striking and strikingly original plot points

This story isn’t as good as I want it to be. I really like ZZ Packer. And I really like a lot of aspects of this story.

Let me give you an example. There is a moment early in the story when the narrator’s frustration with his father abates at the mention of driving all night to go to the Million Man March in Washington, D.C. He’s actually daydreaming about how much his high school debate team would miss him were he to go to D.C., but no matter – the point is that it feels like a small moment the reader has observed, interpreted and baked into its character assessment of the narrator.

All of which is ruined a few paragraphs later when the narrator tells us, “For a brief moment I’d wanted to go to the March…”

It’s a small thing, really. But it’s just clumsy enough to break the story’s spell. More and more, I find that the spell is everything in fiction. It doesn’t have to be the most interesting or emotional or revelatory story of all time to hold your interest. But it does need to maintain that hold on storytelling authenticity – that spell over the reader that never allows you even for a single sentence to think, “Oh, right, this isn’t real. These aren’t real people. This is a writer who is just trying their best to write sentences in some kind of narrative order.”

There were enough moments like the above “For a brief moment I’d wanted to go…” in this story to keep me at arm’s length.

A shame because, as I said, there is a lot of great stuff here. I’ll mention quickly the plot. It’s something. Boy picking up his dad from jail. Dad wants to pick up exotic birds at his ex’s house? Dad wants to drive all night to sell said birds at the Million Man March in D.C.? Boy trying to find his place in the world, cast against father-son conflict and racial identity crisis.

It’s a lot, and a lot of is very good. Certainly it is original. Find me another story with those plot points.

And that’s quite a trick on Packer’s part.

The selection:

“You need to go to this March. When you go, check in at the pussy booth and tell ‘em you want to exchange yours for a johnson.”

I check the rearview mirror, then cross all lanes of I-65 North until I’m on the shoulder. It’s the kind of boldness he’d always wanted me to show to everyone else but him.

“You better have a good reason for stopping,” he says.

“Get out,” I say, as soon as I stop the car. The birds also stop their chatter, and when I turn around they’re looking from me to him as though they’ve placed bets on who will go down in flames.

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