End Of The World by Dean Doner, 1959
The magic trick:
Second-person narration imbued with familiarity telling a story of longing for community and familiarity
We’re off to South Dakota this week.
And I’ll be honest, I struggled some to find four South Dakota stories. But this is where the project gets really cool. Because I had to go digging, I wound up reading an author I’d never heard of before. It seems Dean Doner published four stories in the New Yorker between 1957 and 1964; three of which detail a childhood spent in Brookings, South Dakota. So I read them. And guess what? They’re so good!
Definitely not groundbreaking. This is your basic stuff with the adult looking back on his childhood, isolating the precise moments when he learned what the world was really like. But a. I really like that kind of story, and b. these are exceptionally well done versions of that model.
So I’m highlighting the three South Dakota stories he wrote this week on the SSMT website. First up, “End Of The World.”
Our young protagonist is consumed with curiosity when a billboard goes up in town proclaiming the world will end next summer. He remembers the date and, months later when it arrives, treks out in the middle of the night across town to the prescribed church.
The risk you run, I suppose, with this kind of “And that was the moment I grew up” coming of age story is that it can easily get oversimplified and overly saccharine.
But this story avoids those pitfalls. It doesn’t simplify as it progresses, even as it distills the boy’s confusion into a lesson learned. Somehow, it gets more and more complicated. He leaves home to see the apocalypse, and suddenly we’re considering religion, politics, capitalism, issues of policing and private property. It’s a complex world he’s stumbling upon, and the story is richer for it.
And that’s quite a trick on Doner’s part.
“Don’t go,” I said quickly. I almost added that he could sleep at our house, but I caught myself in time. I knew that that would never be permitted, and I suppose I knew why, but I felt defiant. Why couldn’t he be given a bed on the back porch? The door into the kitchen could be locked. However, I was sure that my parents would never consent, and because I wanted to give John De Motte something, to repay him for all he had done, I suddenly blurted out my secret. “Did you know,” I stammered, “did you know the world is supposed to end at six o’clock tomorrow morning?” And I told him all about the billboard and the Christ the Saviour Chapel.
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