Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 453
Benedict’s style in this early work is often compared to that of his fellow West Virginian writer Breece D’J Pancake, in particular because of his laconic prose, careful attention to local dialect, and portrayal of the colorful, often frightening underclass of the rural South. “Town Smokes” is short fiction at its best: simple and spare but also philosophically complicated.
Written in the present tense, the story unfurls as life does, hinging on the interplay of each decision and its circumstances. As in his story “Miracle Boy” (1998), Benedict strategically places flashbacks, in this case, to reveal more about the father’s death. Mixed with the story of the shorthorn sheep called out onto the ice for cruel sport, the flashback of the death of the boy’s father illustrates that the present is linked with the past and that people cannot find meaning in one without the context of the other.
Benedict builds tension simply by paying attention to the taste of the rain, the smell of pine from Hunter’s wood carving, the sound of the hard rain on the new tin roof, and the unpredictable force of nature. When the young narrator runs into the two older boys along the railroad tracks on his trip to town, the boy gives in when faced with their superior size, experience, and weapons. The boy hates to think of these two possessing what few things remain from his father’s life but is powerless to do anything about it. No stunning feats of physical strength and no cunning verbal repartee will get him out of the situation. He gives into stronger forces, then goes on his way. He is in the process of becoming, a story in the process of being told.
In regional fiction, place is voice. In “Town Smokes,” the voice of the setting is not only heard but also felt. For example, the rain “throbs” Uncle Hunter these days, and the radio announcer says to watch for flash floods in the narrow creeks coming down off the mountain in a manner that suggests the mountain is to blame. Benedict’s writing suggests that life is navigated best when people pay close attention to it. Benedict has said that he works to keep his ego out of his story, to focus his efforts in service to the story. In “Town Smokes,” he succeeds. His words do not prevent the reader from paying attention to what matters: to the boy making it through his first solo adventure, to his finding a respite in the momentary kindness of a stranger, and his willingness to build up the strength to go through life just the way he wants with nothing to hold him back.
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