Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Carlson’s stories signal a return to the tradition of realism in American short fiction. The author describes ordinary people who struggle to maintain their balance in unusual circumstances. “The Ordinary Son” is the story of a seventeen-year-old boy born into a family of geniuses who must learn how to live a normal life when he realizes that he is the only family member who possesses no extraordinary gifts or aptitudes. Many of Carlson’s stories are concerned with the issues of growing up. As in “The Ordinary Son,” the narrator is typically an adult reflecting back across time on key periods in his adolescence. For Reed Landers, the summer of 1966, when he takes his first job and buys a car, is the pivotal season of his life.

Reed’s remembrances of that summer coalesce around four incidents that mark his discovery that the family curse of genius has passed him by and the beginning of his attempts to embrace the freedom and possibilities that life as a non-genius is offering him. In Carlson’s story, these four episodes acquire a sharp clarity of focus that makes them stand out from Reed’s recollections of his family and his home. The first incident is Reed’s realization that his brother Garrett has begun to manifest signs of genius. Walking into his brother’s room one day, Reed finds Garrett writing out complicated mathematical formulae for rocket trajectories on sheets of white butcher paper spread across the floor. With the...

(The entire section is 436 words.)