Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Frederick Busch employs the contemporary realistic mode sometimes called minimalism: comparatively flat narrative style, first-person point of view, limited scope of action, relatively small emotional shifts in the resolution. It is sometimes claimed that nothing happens in these stories. At their best, however, as with this story, they demonstrate how much can be accomplished with limited material. The style of this story is largely an outgrowth of the character of the narrator. His voice, world-weary, ironic, and flat in the post-Hemingway manner, controls the action and the rate of revelation. By turns funny and bitter, he recounts the events from the inside, ruling out any larger perspective, any pretense of objectivity. He does not see what he has revealed about himself until he has already revealed it, if then.

This method of presentation puts the emphasis squarely on the narrator and his personal development. The reader becomes aware not only of the encounters but also of the main character’s responses to them as the central issue: What does the narrator learn? How does he change? To what extent does he grow? His restricted vocabulary and limited verbal range stress that this story is truly his, while at the same time they suggest other limitations that he is striving to overcome. He is not capable of taking an Olympian view, indeed seems incapable of getting outside himself to look at events, until he finds himself caring for someone else toward the story’s end. These minimalistic narrative elements, which can tend toward cliché in the contemporary short story, work admirably in “Ralph the Duck” precisely because they are in the service of a character and a story that demand such a treatment.