It’s strange how reading short stories similar to your own end up illuminating you on why those old works of yours baffled your friends. So much for holding back my opinion, huh? Well, I undertook this series of reviews in order to improve my writing. And I’ve ended up in the same position a lot of my former peer reviewers occupied: feeling distant from a work that has a lot of ideas, but is sloppily put together and doesn’t flesh out whatever it’s going for.
“The Final Sermon” concerns a family with a child, Sunny, working a shitty job and spending all his downtime getting high. His father, a former preacher, writes him a “sermon” containing advice from (and love from) Sunny’s family. Sunny doesn’t pay much mind to this letter, and instead spends the night after his birthday party getting high, returning home, and starting a fire on accident. His mother, in a few quite dramatic and exciting paragraphs, saves the house. Father then writes a “Final Sermon” that, despite not differing from the first letter besides a refusal to give more unsolicited advice in the future, convinces Sunny to shape up. Somehow. Seeing what was actually written in that letter would’ve done wonders for the narrative.
Did I mention that this story features a first-person narrator? Who knows Sunny enough to give him birthday gifts, but also can read the minds of other family members? I’m certain this narrator doesn’t appear in the second half of the story, a detail most readers will barely notice because this chronicler leaves little impact otherwise. With some quirky details in “The Final Sermon,” I don’t mind a lack of explanation, even if it would be appreciated—such as a stern father decorating his sermon with clip art insects, or how smart and articulate Sunny becomes at the end. But the climax, where the mother lets out the smoke from the oven and flashes back to memories of Sunny’s childhood, results in a peachy-perfect happy ending that totally baffles me. Was the point of the sequence that the parents finally realized how much they cared for Sunny? All previous signs point out they did care; it’s just that they’re weren’t good at conveying so in ways besides words, especially for a father that “felt like parenting was all about preaching,” (Schafer, 85). Maybe a direct action influenced Sunny, like his mother potentially saving his life. But the transformation arrives, I think, from Sunny realizing the good parts about the world in the second-to-last paragraph. Have you noticed how often I’ve said something like “I think” in this post? Lots of summation going on in the story, and definitely to its detriment.
I’d usually assume that “The Final Sermon” exists as an excerpt from a larger story, but everything wraps up so hunky-dory at the end that it appears someone ripped out a few pages in between instead. A work of art clever enough to have the junkie, instead of feeling sad, “occur[ed] to him that he might be sad,” (Schafer, 87)… a story that insightful towards addicts should not also contain the Disneyland ending too. At least not without lots of explanation, getting us in the mindset of the characters as opposed to their revelations.
Schafer’s WordPress Blog catalogues the various places she has published her work, such as Santa Monica Review and Fiction 365. Looks like, according to her site, I can expect to read her work in Glimmer Train later on. None of my peer reviewers gave up hope on me, so I yearn to see her creativity expressed in a better structure when we meet again. But that’s not the story at hand. Maybe you parents out there can get something out of “The Final Sermon,” but the story itself won’t convert any of Glimmer Train’s nonbelievers.
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