Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Tim Gautreaux

I have been reading Tim Gautreaux's Waiting for the Evening News with a growing sense of excitement. Gautreaux, who was taught by Walker Percy, is sometimes linked with fellow Catholics, Walker Percy and Flannery O'Connor. Not only does he hail from, and write about, the Deep South but his short stories also have wonderful dialogue and an acute sense of place.

However, while O'Connor often uses a moment of violence as a means of grace, Gautreaux's approach is to see crisis moments as opportunities for intervention. As he puts it in one very interesting interview: "There are several of my stories that you could call intervention stories, where somebody's in a bad way, and a character takes that step to help, breaks through the mirror, to go to the other side. There's no story unless somebody does something like that.... But all of that comes from being raised Catholic where we have been taught to help people who are less fortunate than we are, not just by praying for them but by actually going out and fixing their busted air conditioners and stuff."

This isn't the place for a full-blown review so I'll restrict myself to a couple of points about Gautreaux's Catholic approach to storytelling. In one story, 'Good for the Soul', he writes that "Sometimes saving a soul was like catching a dragonfly. You couldn't blunder up to it and trap it with a swipe of the hand." The same could be said of Gautreaux's approach in his fiction. As one of the characters in 'Misuse of Light' puts it in other context, to get to the truth you have to look at everything - "objects, shadows, even the blurry parts."

He also made these fascinating comments in the interview I mentioned above:

"I seem to run across two types of stories that worry me. One is the New Yorker type tale where everything is a joke and the reader can't really take anything, including death and disease, seriously. The reader feels he's not supposed to have intense emotions about anything because that's silly and bourgeois. And the other type of story I run across is a truly dark narrative about vicious people who don't learn anything from what they do and are not punished in any way and never get their comeuppance. Sometimes that's realism. And such stories belong in the canon. But the mistake a writer of those types of stories makes, I think, is to write all of his stories like that because then, cumulatively, the author gets away from realism.

"Now what do I mean by that? It's unrealistic to ignore compassion and the ability people have to cope and even triumph over their problems. You can write a story about how horrible it is to die from a certain type of cancer. That's realistic. Yet I run across many people who have coped with their cancer and are in fairly good shape the night they die. I've known people like this. Where is their literature? I read this student's story about a woman who was molested, was totally ruined emotionally, and eventually committed suicide. I've known many male and female students who were sexually abused, and most have coped in various ways. Some of them even write about it, which is disturbing to read, but nevertheless — maybe it's therapy — they're able to do it. Somehow people who suffer in this way or that are able to triumph over what they're going through. Where are the short stories about the small successes that people have dealing with their problems? Well, they're not out there because they're hard as hell to write without making them seem simple-minded or clichéd or insipid or sentimental. The most frightening thing in the world to an intelligent writer is sentimentality. He doesn't want a molecule of it in his fiction. But I think if you read enough and you understand how to blend humor and irony and the right tone in with the bad stuff, you can write a story that carries an emotional load yet is not sentimental in the least."


For the teachers among you, this analysis of the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and this story written in its aftermath may be of interest.

These thoughts on writing short stories are also really useful in the classroom.


  1. Roy, thank you so much for introducing me to Gautreaux. I had been searching for a while for something contemporary that packs literary punch but also has compassion and moral fibre, for teaching to my lower sixth. And here it is!

    1. Anthony, glad you like Gautreaux. I'm going to be teaching some of his stories to my Lower 6th next year too so let's compare notes.