The Difference Between a Novel and a Short Story


First, a passage from a the novel:

The old man kneels down on one knee. He bends over the ancient machine and tugs on the bent paper clip that used to bind a sheaf of papers from the Department of Agriculture. He slips the bend over the latch where the throttle cable used to nest. He tests the tension on the throttle spring. “That’s going to do her,” he mutters. He leans across the engine, probing with his index finger. He finds the priming pump, and fondles it like a beautiful woman’s belly button. A puzzled look steals across his face. For a moment, a cloud covers the sun. Then it drifts away. Or has the Earth rotated? He cannot be sure.

The old man rises to his feet and smoothes the wrinkles from his trousers. He turns toward the open door of the garage and marches forward. To an observer, his stride has purpose. What the old man feels is a marshaling of his separate joints and muscle groups, a conscious effort to control the pain that has settled into each of them. He smiles. “It’s working,” he says.

His eyes scan the concrete floor and he sees it. The red gas can with the jimmied spout. For five years he wrestled with that spout, sloshing gas everywhere. The 2 part safety lock required two hands, but the old man needed one of his hands to hold the can and tilt the spout into the opening of the tanks of cars, motorcycles, lawnmowers, and cans full of Japanese beetles. The safety lock had the net effect of creating danger. Once, the old man saw an ad for an open spout that claimed to be a solution for dangerous safety spouts. The price on the open spout was $11 plus shipping. “I paid $10 for the fucking gas can,” the old man said. “Why the fuck would I pay more for a fucking spout?” The old man remembered two poems by Ernest Hemingway. The poems cautioned readers to save the “f” word for circumstances where no other word would do. “Fuck Hemingway,” the old man laughed.

He unscrewed the cap from the rusting tank, tilted the spout, and poured. When gasoline ran down the outside of the tank onto the mower’s deck, he stopped pouring. He fastened the cap, and turned toward the garage. He took half a step and turned it into a pirouette. He bent over the engine and reached for the oil cap. There was some resistance to the twist, but it popped off. He stared at the dipstick and was satisfied. The gas can went back to its place under the work table. His eyes scanned the high shelf and he saw the green container with 30 wt oil. He would not need that today. “Now,” he say, wiping his hands one on the other, “Let’s see what we got.”

He poked at the primer and felt the resistance of fluid forced though the line and into the carburetor. He pumped 6 times, for that was the effective measure that he had discovered the first time he got his engine started, after replacing the spark plug and dumping ancient clots of debris from the carburetor bowl. He could not recollect how many years ago. It did not matter. Now is now, as it always is. He grasped the fading black handle and twisted back, pulling the rope in an easy, measured stroke. The engine sputtered, then roared to life. “First pull,” he smiled.

Now,, the same passage from a short story:

He started the lawnmower.

If this were an essay, I would belabor you with structural theory. I would insult your intelligence by pointing out, in minute detail, the richness of the longer passage. I know you are busy, so I’ll let you go with this:

Make you life a novel, my friends.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s