book Charity

reviewed by Camille Renshaw

Published in Issue No. 17 ~ October, 1998

Mark Richard populates his latest collection of short stories, Charity, with a desperate set of characters that includes hospitalized orphans, ex cons, mythological figures like Death, and a scorched forest fire fighter. These characters are stripped by adversity, their own stupidity, and addiction, and charity comes to them in strange forms: a nurse lets sick orphans watch a Hitchcock thriller one night in “The Birds for Christmas”; a father takes out a son’s stitches instead of cutting off his hand for knocking down his shed, in “Gentleman’s Agreement.” From these grim lives, Richard doesn’t make all-inclusive discoveries. Instead, he lays out the dull, the gross, and the harrowing matter-of-factly. He takes his characters in their weakest moments and describes the small mercies they find there.

Richard’s strengths are many, including inventive naming, genuinely Southern dialogue, unique phrases, and a sweet, funny sensibility. His reviewers often refer to his O’Conner-like moral sensibility and his Faulkner-esque language, but his innovative use of action as catalyst to character is a call back to Chekhov.

“The Birds for Christmas” is a good example of how his characters’ actions reflect this incisive, yet humane vision without an analytical intrusion from Richard. The story begins with a short paragraph that tells us, in the clear, witty style of Francine Prose, where we are and what the people there want. He describes the hospital and two orphans’ desire to watch “The Birds” during Christmas week on television. Then we learn of their obstacle: the nurse thinks they’re too young and that the program might disrupt the younger children.

Telling us these boys’ struggle to have a decent Christmas isn’t enough. Richard wants us to hear his characters’ voices. One orphan says things like, “Fuck Frosty… I see that a hunrett times. I want to see The Birds, man. I want to see those birds get all up in them people’s hair. That’s some real Christmas TV to me.” We find just enough dialogue to let us know what kind of people we’re dealing with and that at least this ten-year-old’s mouth is suffering from his lack of a mother.

Richard quickly summarizes how sponsors were signing up to take all the orphans on the ward except the narrator and his friend Michael, the last “Big Boys.” They wouldn’t care if they were left on the ward for Christmas if only they received their wishes. The narrator wanted a train set for Christmas and Michael wanted to see “The Birds.” The narrator knows from the beginning that this is too nice a gift to wish for and that he will never receive as much, so he throws in with his friend and wants to see the movie.

In short paragraphs Richard weaves in and out of prior incidents of Michael’s misbehaving at the orphanage and how bold he was in requesting “The Birds” for Christmas. With this background, Richard brings us into the present where the janitor breaks their soundless television, and all possibilities of the orphans’ wish being granted are diminished. Then Richard writes the first long scene.

The next day when Seminary students teach the orphans the Nativity story, the narrator and Michael begin squawking that the angels are birds. They laugh that the shepherds were “sore afraid.” They curse and act out uncontrollably because they no longer have anything to behave for. The characters have a page of dialogue before they are rolled into a linen closet and left there for several hours as punishment. Richard explores this scene so closely because it is the first place where the orphans’ actions and emotions have developed into a weighted frenzy.

Then Richard gives us another quick scene, just eight sentences long. One day during Christmas week, a man named Sammy, once a patient there as a child, shows up drunk as Santa. He goes around to all the beds and asks the patients what their Christmas wishes are. Slowly he becomes more and more melancholy and then blubbering drunk. The janitor “puts him out.”

The final scene is the longest one in the story, although little dialogue is used. On Christmas Eve everyone on the ward has been taken by someone, except the narrator and Michael. They are listless until Sammy shows back up with a portable TV. The narrator writes several times: “It was Christmas, Sammy convinced the night nurse.” The kids are astounded by the surprise, and then by the frightening movie. Michael comments during a commercial, “Those birds messing them people up.” At the end of the movie, Sammy sneaks out a side door, and the orphans bury themselves in bed. The last line reads, “It was Christmas Eve, and we were sore afraid.”

Richard doesn’t comment on his characters’ distress or its impact or elaborate on their motivations. He simply enlightens us through their actions. We know these kids are reputedly bad because of the nurses’ terrible reactions toward them versus other children, but we like them anyway because we know and relate to their deep desires. All children have that one wish at Christmas. And to Richard, who happened to spend much of his youth in these hospitals, the thing that matters most in their young lives is the small mercy, the random act of charity, they receive from a drunk one Christmas.

Mark Richard is the author of the critically acclaimed novel Fishboy and the award winning collection of stories, The Ice at the Bottom of the World, which won the PEN/ Ernest Hemingway Foundation Award. Charity was released in September 1998. His stories have appeared in Esquire, The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Oxford American, The Paris Review, Best American Short Stories, New Stories from the South, and The Pushcart Prize Annual anthology.

Mark Richard lives in Los Angeles. His name is pronounced in the French manner.

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Camille Renshaw is from Nashville, TN, where she also completed her graduate work in English at Vanderbilt University. An avid hiker, she had just returned from hiking the Appalachian Trail when her first poems in Pif Magazine were published. Camille later became managing editor of Pif Magazine.