Thursday, August 31, 2017

"Strangers to Temptation"

Scott Gould’s work has appeared in Kenyon Review, Carolina Quarterly, Black Warrior Review, New Madrid Journal, New Stories from the South, and New Southern Harmonies, among others. He is a two-time winner of the Artist Fellowship in Prose from the South Carolina Arts Commission and a past winner of the Fiction Fellowship from the South Carolina Academy of Authors. Gould chairs the creative writing department at the S.C. Governor’s School for the Arts & Humanities in Greenville.

He applied the Page 69 Test to his story collection, Strangers to Temptation, and reported the following:
I have to be honest. I didn’t think this Page 69 thing would be very successful (or interesting) for a collection of stories. I mean, the stories in Strangers to Temptation are linked by several elements—setting, narrator, the early 1970s—but they are stand-alone pieces, so there’s no chance one page would illuminate the other 223?

I flipped to page 69. I was way wrong.

Strangers to Temptation has several themes running through it: race, coming of age, class divisions, sexuality. And all of them rear their heads on page 69. That page hits toward the end of a story called “May McIntosh Flies, John Wayne Runs,” in a the midst of a long scene where the narrator (a fourteen-year old white kid) and his new black friend sneak through the muddy swamp to watch a football game—specifically, to watch May McIntosh perform her cheerleading gyrations. (May cheers for the brand new, white-flight private high school. This is the early 70s, remember?) The two boys have stumbled onto a group of older country boys who share a bottle of whiskey and a similar goal: to hide in the woods and watch May McIntosh fly through the air.

At the top of the page, the narrator realizes that his black friend has safely ditched him because, “[Columbus] was already smart enough at that age to check before stepping out of the shadows.” He’s already learned to avoid the kind of white people who are passing the bottle around. He knows the dividing line between shadow and light. (Also, I thought it was ironic that the first word on the page is we, because in those post-segregation days, it wasn’t easy to figure out what we meant.)

The boys can’t keep their eyes of May McIntosh. She is nearly goddess-like the way she makes “a mockery of the laws of gravitation and physics.” The narrator has a special connection to May. Early in the story, she lays a big kiss on him that tastes like coconuts. He’s been fascinated with her since. Hence, his trip to spy on her.

The boys sharing the bottle are not townies. They are hard-edged, quick-to-anger country boys, which makes the final question on the page significant. A kid in a hunting coat asks the narrator, “Why you out here?” None of the boys are where they are supposed to be that night, hiding there in the dark, a long way from the light and the bleachers that are occupied by private school kids.

So it all seems to be on page 69: the racial tensions and confusions of the early 70s, burgeoning sexuality brought on by coming-of-age, class stratification and folks crossing boundary lines in the dark.

The Page 69 Test. How did it know?
Visit Scott Gould's website.

--Marshal Zeringue