December 24, 2012

"Shirley Temple Three"

By Thomas Pierce
~7000 words

A woman is asked by her son to care for a dwarf-sized woolly mammoth.

Louise Baker is the woman, more affectionately known as Mawmaw, and her son Tommy is the host of an Atlanta-based TV show called "Back from Extinction." The show's producers somehow clone specimens of extinct species for the amazement of modern audiences before sending them off to the Back from Extinction Zoo, where they live out the remainder of their anachronistic existence. Except sometimes complications happen, like when two clones are created instead of one and Tommy agrees to help the attractive zookeeper save one from euthanasia (there are laws about this, apparently), which means that Shirley Temple (the unfortunate beast's pet name) ends up a safe distance from Atlanta—in Mawmaw's backyard. Suffice it to say that the woolly in woolly mammoth does not mix well with the Georgia heat, leading to challenges in Mawmaw's relationship with Shirley Temple as well as her son.

One of the strengths of this story is its seemingly effortless use of free indirect discourse to place the reader in the perspective of the main character. Consider the brilliant opening paragraph:
Mawmaw’s throwing the party, and her own son is three hours late. Already he’s missed his cousin’s goshdern ceremony and the grape-juice toasts and the cake-cutting, and now he’s about to miss the couple’s mad dash to the car, too. All the tables are decorated with white flowers in beakers, since the groom is a chemist for a textile company, and in the foyer she’s put out enlarged photos from when the bride and groom were babies and total strangers to each other, and over all Mawmaw would give her reception an A-plus if not for this business with Tommy.
In just three sentences we find ourselves swept into Mawmaw's perspective, without a single use of "She thought" or "She said to herself." And it's pretty much that way for the entire story. Very impressive.

This is also an extraordinarily original piece. There are many stories that feature animals prominently, but there aren't too many premised on the resurrection of a stone-age beast that gets treated as some kind of household pet. And yet this is not just quirkiness for the sake of quirkiness. As in all good fiction, plot reveals character: in her interaction with the animal, Mawmaw demonstrates her inner decency (which is founded, it turns out, on some rather kooky religious beliefs—points for complexity!), and in his interaction with Mawmaw, Tommy reveals his utter selfishness. And in the end you can't help sympathizing for the poor woolly mammoth, caught between the two of them.

The only thing that keeps me from giving this story my highest mark is that I felt a bit cheated by the ending. Since it is ultimately a story about the relationship between mother and son, I felt like I needed a little more attention paid to that element at the end. There is a suggestion that perhaps some kind of tipping point has been reached—Mawmaw is on her fourth after-dinner cigarette despite having always limited herself to one, and she doesn't respond to Tommy's presence—but I would have liked to see the dynamic dramatized a little more richly.

"Shirley Temple Three" is a very solid TNY début. Congratulations to MFA student Thomas Pierce, and kudos to the TNY editorial board for starting and ending the year with new voices. Let's hope there will be many more of those to come in 2013!


*As of this post, I'm instituting a new rating—Strong—that will lead to a four-point system. Look for an explanation in a future post.

Reader poll: I found "Shirley Temple Three" to be ___.

1 comment:

  1. Like many of the short stories in the New Yorker, I found Shirley Temple 3 lacking. Mawmaw had a relationship with Shirley and yet we're left wondering what happened. Did she wander off to die? Was Shirley discovered? I feel cheated and feel the denouement was forgotten. Whatever happened to complete stories, goshdernit!?