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Sunday 12/11/22

I'm working again on a story called "Net Drive." It was first written in 2019--I suspect there's an excerpt of that early version in these pages--and then revised last year, an now altered and added to quite a bit for a third version, which will most likely be in No Mercy When We Get There: Stories to Wreck You. But for now, I thought I'd describe it, because I think it's a remarkable story, a unique story. One says what a story is about, how it works, and that says a lot. Especially when we contrast what that is with how one might describe any other short story by anyone else currently being published at present. Because there's nothing to say about any of them usually.

"Net Drive" is a story about a young man's coming out as gay, and a complex family drama, that takes place within the space of a single play in a high school hockey game. That play is referenced by the title. When a player makes a net drive, he advances upon goal in the most direct manner possible. It's like a charge to the net.

The story is narrated by the young man, in real time. Which means it's playing out in his thoughts.

Thoughts don't answer to external time. That is, the strictures of internal time--which we think of as what we can get done in a given amount of time--don't apply to what happens in our minds.

When people are floored by how much I do--because, after all, we all have the same amount of time in the day--what they usually fail to consider is what I do with time on the inside. They are almost always all about time on the outside.

Time isn't that simple to me. In your head, you can have an unlimited amount of thoughts at once. Thoughts superimpose. They stack. Inside time isn't nearly the same as outside time, but they are brought to bear on each other.

As the story begins, the narrator has received the puck from a teammate of his named Aaron Steadman. The two play on the same line. Steadman has hit the narrator with a pass just outside of what we're told is the Prep blueline--so he's about to enter the offensive/attacking zone.

The word "Prep" doesn't just indicate the opponent. That's how a hockey player, too, would reference the other team conversationally.

If you play hockey in Fairfield County, Connecticut, for instance, you say you have a game against Prep on Friday, not Fairfield Prep.

There is also the implication that a team called Prep is going to be a good team. It's not a public high school. There are players who go to the prep school simply for the quality of hockey and to get to the next level. To play DI in college, if possible.

The narrator is unabashed about his abilities. He knows he's good. Very good. He conveys that not only does his team never beat Prep, they get crushed each time. 12-4, 8-2, 14-1. But this year is different. Could be. We can infer that he's a senior. At least three games have happened to date--and it's probably just three; one a year--because the lopsided scores suggest that the teams were unlike to have met a second time during those seasons in any kind of playoff. Two teams on different tracks.

This is his last chance at beating this powerhouse school that likely means something to his team but not to Prep, because they routinely crush opponents like this.

When he gets the pass from Steadman, the narrator is flying. We know that he's the fastest kid on the ice this year. Speed is a huge part of his game. His dad is in the stands yelling. The kid is conscious of his father's words. They don't really spend time together apart from whatever this is--the boy on the ice, the dad in the stands, the former hearing the latter as he plays the game.

The kid is only with his dad one weekend a month. It's not the relationship either one really wants to have, but again, there are some complex family dynamics at play.

Speaking of plays: the play in this game--the net drive--is the driver of the story. Sometimes you can isolate the driver of a story. Every good story has as driver. Some are more overt than others.

In "Fitty," the driver is stairs. Everything is built off of the driver, but you'd have to point that out to people in order for them to see it, if the story is excellent, because there's so much else happening, so much of consequence, but also in a highly controlled way that also feels fresh, improvised. That's the balance--it must be struck. A story cannot be great without it.

It's beautiful how this kid describes the entirety of the play, the drive to the net, his drive to the net. The description is art. It's poetic, it's mathematical, it's like a physics theorem meets art criticism meets sports writing. He knows his stuff. He knows his game. He knows the game. He sees into the game in a way few people can. He gets the "beyond" quality of sport, of this sport.

Sport has its greatest utility when it's about more than sport. If it's not, it's just sport. And what is sport when it is just sport, but a game?

Whereas, this is life.

The narrator is unnamed. He's not going to name himself out of the blue, and there's no natural need for him to think of his own name. His father does call him Teto from the stands, which could be his name, or a nickname, or a term of affection. He's bearing down on the best defenseman in the state, a kid named Trent Tullo, who will be playing at Michigan next year on a hockey scholarship. It's Tullo that stands between this kid and the net--the player he has to get past, the attempted undertaking that is described in the most precise detail.

During this play, we learn about the boy's family situation, his teammate Aaron, and his sister Deema. The boy's parents are divorced. For a period of time that's not specified--though we can imply it's a year or two--he's had a new sister--that would be Deema--and a stepfather.

His actual father has been relegated to a lesser role and feels he's been replaced. The kid stays with him one weekend a month. They get together before hockey games for a sort of pep talk, and then after the games outside the locker room for a post-game wrap-up as the other kids are taking their showers. A lot of their relationship plays out now when the kid is on the ice and the dad is in the stands yelling down to him. The kid describes it as a personal conversation, in a way, that other people can hear.

He had a history with Deema prior to the new family coming together. His mother and his stepfather don't know about that history. The two kids who are now siblings were at separate schools for a number of years, and then they went to a dance together. At the dance, they left the main room--a gymnasium--and repaired to a classroom, where something notable and what the boy identified as "off," happened. But now they're something else, and he's realized he's something else. He's someone else. Someone he's been all along.

We learn about something that happened on the bus coming back from a road game a couple hours away during January, with the snow falling, the bus hauling down the parkway, passing the regular cars, which is a detail that tells, but also a highly believable detail. Volunteer bus drivers drive those buses. They're almost like honorary members of the team. It's not straight-up bus protocol, that you get with the person who takes you to school in the morning. What happens on this bus between, the narrator and Aaron is significant. It's huge. In its exactitude. It's full nature.

Later the narrator goes into Deema's room at the house they both live in now, where the kid used to live with his mom and his dad. Deema is at this hockey game as well. She's the first person he talks to about this very important thing. This sister who had definitely not been like a sister prior, in more ways than the one.

The entire time we're also on the ice. And it's highly dramatic and intense the way that play unfolds. I said that we're not told the narrator's official name--or it's not spelled out--but I should note that Teto is Portuguese for "roof," a word that plays a significant role in the last sentence of the story. That's how deep the design goes and that's always how it is in my work.

For a story to be truly great, it must feel like it was created then and there, improvised, with no past; it has to be pure immediacy. It can feel workshopped, it can feel like the writer said, "Hmmm, how can I sound like an important writer?"

That doesn't mean it can't happen in the past tense or that there can't be many different tenses. But it still has to have that feeling of immediacy. Or unrivaled freshness. There must be no any for the reader that someone sat and planned this out and here they are trying to make an intelligent analogy or any of that nonsense.

Shot out of a cannon of life. That's what a great story has to be.

And that's not a pace thing, an assertion that everything must bound. I don't believe there's a single other author in the world right now who can what I'm talking about with this crucial life factor. At the same time, the design must be meticulous and relentless. It has to go to the bottom of every word, permeate every single part, large or small--though there really is no large or small--of the story.

A reader should be able to spend their life evaluating that design and always finding further examples of the cohesion, the level upon interconnected level upon interconnected level upon interconnected level, even as everything in the story feels like it happens organically, naturally, and is one surprise after another. The surprises make sense, but they are impossible to see coming.

So: gay sports story and family drama that takes place within the space of a single play at boys high school hockey game.

Who else is writing anything like that?


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