Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 655

“Town Smokes” is the title story of a collection of short stories by Pinckney Benedict that examine borders and are populated by independent people with strong personalities. In his first interview about the book in The New York Times Book Review, Benedict noted that West Virginia, where the stories take place, is often called a border state because northerners think of it as a southern state and the southerners hold the opposite opinion; Benedict calls the state a doorway. The emotional content of this title story involves borders, the border between boyhood and adulthood and between a dual sense of place and displacement.

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“Town Smokes” takes place at a camp on top of Tree Mountain. As the story unfolds, the boy’s interpretation of life’s events is padded by expressions and understandings that have been passed on to him by his father and his uncle and by a knowledge gained from living intimately with nature. He knows from his father, for example, that a hard rain and a blue sky can happen at the same time, but when such an event occurs at the story’s beginning, this is the first he has seen it for himself. He has been prepared and now is witnessing life firsthand. This is his first awakening in a long line of such events. He knows that with his father dead, it is his time to become a man. He knows, too, that he is not yet a man. He is on the border, in between.

The tension at the beginning of the story is between the boy and the alcoholic Uncle Hunter, his father’s older brother. As his uncle offers advice on how the boy should conduct himself, it is quickly evident that his advice will hold no sway. The boy has learned from his family all that he will. He is now set to make it on his own. Although the story suggests that he has been launched prematurely, it intimates that what he has learned will be adequate for his survival. He has learned the importance of appreciating the value of one’s belongings and, by extension, of valuing his self as a resource. As a point of comparison, the boy later runs across two older boys as he is heading down the mountain. They rob him; they hold power over him. However, ultimately the narrator holds the upper hand. They are missing their teeth, one is mentally slow, and perhaps most pointedly, their gun stock is wrapped with black electric tape and the receiver is rusty. By contrast, the young narrator has learned that the worst thing for any good piece of metal is the touch of a person’s hand. Indeed, the knife he has to give over looks shiny even under the cloudy sky. These boys have clearly lived much more of their lives without the guidance and care of their elders.

In “Town Smokes,” nature is a personified force, one to be reckoned with, to fight, and to give in to. In fact, the unpredictable power of nature is what has killed the boy’s father. The predominant natural element in “Town Smokes” is the rainstorm that causes a geographical transformation and mirrors the boy’s personal journey between finding his “place” and being “displaced.” As the story begins, the boy is standing out in the rain, large tasteless raindrops falling in his mouth and washing the sweat, dirt, and the past off him. However, the rain is coming down so hard that the boy knows it will run off and not penetrate deep into the earth. Real change, like becoming a man, is slow and steady work. By the story’s end, however, he has set out on a path that will lead him away from the shallow creeks on the mountaintop and to the real river that comes through just as it wants, with nothing to hold it back.

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