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Stories like Fine Beer and Cheese: The Importance of Texture (Part 1)

Ian David Philpot

The following is part 1 of 3 from Robert Garbacz.

[Author’s Note: This is part one of a three-part series discussing the importance of a rich texture in fiction.  Here, I discuss the way Greg Mitchell used contrasting genres and perspectives to earn “Flowers for Shelly” a place in the second Diner. Next week, I will take a more literary turn with Michael Snyder’s “Normal People” from Relief 3.1. I will conclude on a practical note, with hints for how to create a sense of texture and a promise of the rewards of taking risks.]

One of the greatest little pleasures of living in Austin is to visit Whole Foods, sampling the cheeses, wines and beer that are available for free.  There is something almost magical about the blend of flavors in a good cheese or ale; a sea of competing tastes, textures and sensations that changes as it trickles across the tongue.  A good beer might start with a soft, fruity taste and then kick in later with a bitter aftertaste.  A good cheese will often be uneven, with a delicious, organic texture as it slides across the tongue.

I hate processed “American cheese” and “light beer.”  Sure, they’re smooth, easy to eat, and they’re focused on their goal.  But they lack the complexity and texture of the good stuff.  In comparison, they’re crap.

The same thing is true of short stories.  Reading through a slush pile, nothing will make me sit up and take note about a story than a sense that it has a really good, complicated texture; that it goes in multiple directions at once, instead of trotting straight at its target.  And while nothing will guarantee acceptance, a story with the rich, variegated texture of a Trappist ale or Irish cheese will make me perk up, and at the least make me want the story to be good enough for acceptance.

But enough about foods, before I get hungry.  Let’s look at our first story, and the way it uses contrasting thoughts and “flavors”  to make something better than the sum of its parts.  (Minor spoilers, it should be noted, are a given.)

“Flowers for Shelly,” from the second Diner, started with the solid, earthy basis of a good character drama.  The narrator is obviously in love with his wife, and wants nothing more than to stay in bed with her all day.  His responsible wife wants him to get up and go to work.  The scene is cute, a bit saccharine, but already somewhat textured thanks to the narrator’s self-deprecating wit.  The wit is understated, but at least engaging:

“Work sucks.  It’s 9:30 a.m. and I want to go home, lie in bed, and wait for Shelly to return with less pressures.  And, preferably, less clothes.”

So far, it’s more textured than processed cheese, but not much.  Maybe Kraft mild cheddar, with a slight kick of humor and marital tension.

Then the narrator’s friend and co-worker gets slaughtered by zombie-police and the story takes on a different tone:

“Suddenly, I feel a cold sensation around my ankle and see a bloody hand reaching out from underneath the car.  Pulling.  Yanking.  Moans rise up like phantoms from the depths of hell and I look into the still teary eyes of Kevin as he lures me in.  At first, I think he’s somehow survived, but then it hits me.  He’s dead, too.”

All of a sudden, this story is beginning to feel more like the sort of solid, hand-crafted cheese that is worth shipping over oceans.  What are the dead doing coming to life?  How will our hero survive?  And what the hell does this have to do with his decision to give flowers to his wife Shelly?  It’s interesting, uneven, and because I have such dissonant tones I don’t know what’s going to happen next.  I like it.

Nor is the combination of two genres all that Greg Mitchell does in his story.  In addition to the gruesome descriptions of zombie mayhem, we have the narrator’s often incoherent thoughts, his gun-nut friends’ insane euphoria at the fact that they’re actually shooting zombies, a thoroughgoing sense of humor, and a mad quest to give pretty flowers to the beautiful Shelly.  I’m not much into zombie stories, but Mitchell’s ability to pile on a hundred different flavors and cram them into a small space made this a fun romp through death and mayhem that I won’t soon forget.

The moral: even with straight-forward, zombie killing genre fiction, odd combinations and unexpected, off-kilter happenings are key.

***

Robert Garbacz, when in his natural habitat, can frequently be seen arguing theology, politics, and art over ale with often excessive volume, haranguing his friends repeatedly with obscure but fascinating facts about Medieval literature, or staring cloyingly into the eyes of his beloved wife Hannah. Unfortunately, his natural habitat is Oxford in the period from 1930-1950. This is a bit awkward for someone born in Tulsa in 1983, but he is studying towards his Doctoral at the University of Texas in Austin and feels this is a firm step in the proper direction. His short story, "The Salvation of Sancho," appeared in the previous Diner anthology, inducting him into this peculiar world of horror, bloodshed, and merciless ravagement of grammatical missteps.