Everyone has experiences that prove to be defining moments in their lives—moments that cause us to look at the world or ourselves and what we can accomplish differently, moments that affect a change of opinion on
a particular subject. In Mark Jarman’s poem Ground Swell, published in 1997, there is a very clear example of this; but in Sherman Alexie’s short story, “Class,” published in 2000, six years ago, this moment is elusive, perhaps even nonexistent. Appearances can be deceiving, but sometimes accurate, and in these two literary works, I will argue that one is true for each—the particular moment in actuality did change the person; and that the moment only superficially changed the character, and even then only for a short while (perhaps even not at all).
In the first piece I will talk about, Mark Jarman’s poem Ground Swell, the defining moment for the main character, who is fifteen in the time he’s recalling—who I’m arbitrarily assuming to be Mark himself, though I think inaccurately—is when¬ he is out in the early morning, surfing, and is noticed by someone who has just graduated and “grown a great blonde mustache” (p.808, line31), which prompts him to “reconsider [his worldly] worth” (p.808, line 37). The first couple lines of this story reminded me a lot of the movie Dazed and Confused—“Is nothing real but when I was fifteen / going on sixteen, like a corny song?” (p.808, line 1-2). There’s no real connection between them, but they do share a theme of teen . . . angst is the only word I can think of. This, in conjunction with the poem’s generally melancholy and blue tone, kind of gives me the impression that his mindset at the time was “if these are the best years of my life, kill me now,” which is a line said in Dazed and Confused. The second literary piece is a short story by Sherman Alexie and is entitled “Class.” It’s a fairly straight-forward story, and by the end, after what we’ve read of what he’s gone through, some of us (desperately) want for him to have changed. The “defining” moment for this main character, a native-American named Edgar Eagle Runner—and an argument cold be made for two defining moments—occurs when Edgar discovers the love notes between his wife and her lover (not Edgar); and possibly when he decides to fight Junior near the end. But I said I would argue that neither of these are defining moments. Part of this stems from the cold, emotional detachment of the story; and another part stems from the fact that he was writing—probably thinking, now that I think about it—about what happened with 20/20 hindsight, and that put an inflection to his voice, which I think came through, however subtly; and yet another part comes from the matter-of-fact, just-the-facts-and-nothing-else prose: we never get inside his head to read what he’s thinking and why he reacted they way he did, and therefore never really connect with him, though we think we have. Personally, I think it could have been a bit more loquacious.
I’ve yet to talk in detail about the actual events and how they changed the character in Ground Swell. To refresh your memory, the character being written about is fifteen, going on sixteen, and while out surfing one early morning (we’re led to presume after the school year has ended), he’s noticed by a now graduated former fellow student, with some surprise. Up until that point, like I said earlier, I think he has a very “if these are the best years of my life, kill me now” attitude at the moment. And based on this, after this moment, I think he got the will to live again—really live, and do something in life, not just listlessly loiter around. If Jarman, the author, is describing a real, past event of his—which earlier I said I was beginning to question—it is a very surreal event: a now-graduated senior noticed him, an innocuous, newly enrolled freshman (perhaps now a sophomore), among huge, more noticeable waves—peers. The passage reads: “There was a day or two when [. . .] / an older boy [. . .] / skimmed past me [. . .] / and said my name. I was so much younger, / to be identified by one like him [. . .] / made me / reconsider my worth. I had been noticed. / [. . .] He had said my name / without scorn, just a bit surprised / to notice me among those trying the big waves / of the morning break.” (page 808, lines 29-43). I get a hint that this kid didn’t have very many friends, probably because he didn’t care enough one way or the other, I think mainly because he was so innocuous, and therefore he never had the best self-esteem. After this moment, having been noticed, a new door opened inside and a new person emerged. Though I don’t think this is even hinted at, I get the feeling the older boy was a more popular boy. If so, that would make being noticed even more significant to this person because that would mean he’s not as worthless as he thought, in any sense—looks, popularity, grades, etc. Near the end of the poem, a few lines make me think of what his future will be: “He came home in a bag / that may have mixed in pieces of his squad. / Yes, I can write about a lot of things / besides the summer that I turned sixteen. / But that’s my ground swell.” (page 809, lines 48-52). Having been noticed by what I have deemed a popular boy—for him a life-changing event—and then seeing him come home in a bag, the possibility of other people mixed in on the table, I sense a strong, yet ever so subtle hint that he became some sort of political activist, or maybe a politician (though I kind of doubt this one).
The other story I will talk about is “Class,” by Sherman Alexie. The story here is also very straight-forward; however, it doesn’t start at the beginning of where the author started it. It starts around the time he enters the bar—everything else is just back-story information so it seems the last line has more weight than it really does. I said there are two events some might call life-changing for Edgar: when he finds his wife’s lover’s letters, and when he decides to fight Junior. I also said I would argue that neither of these are life-changing, and in fact, nothing in this story is. We first find out about the affair in this line: “[. . .] while Susan kept he Friday lunches free so she could carry on an / affair with an architect named Harry[,]” (p.588, line 80.1-2) and goes on to say he “discovered his love letters hidden in a shoe box at the bottom of her walk-in / closet.” (P.588, line 80.5-6) This blunt, mater-of-fact prose is very stripped—stripped of emotion, of excess words, excess anything really—and as such, I don’t think we can really sympathize with him—it’s out of the blue, with no foreshadowing, and, for me at least, actually kind of awkward. A 20/20 hindsight inflection can be heard, and I think it hurts the story deeply. Later in the story, Edgar decides to fight Junior (he “looked like Chief Broom in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” (p592, line175.11)). But this also isn’t a life-changing event because nothing really comes of it. We neither see the change prompting it, nor the aftereffects. At the very least, Alexie could have had a closing paragraph, style- and prose-consistent, detailing how the fight effected him. Instead, he just has the line “I was gone. But now I’m back.” (p.596, line 310.2). Personally, in and of itself, I like this line, it’s a very cool line. But I don’t think such a superficial story deserved such a (possibly) deep and meaning-filled ending. I know I’ve heard this ending before, but if this is where we got it, I can only think that someone was drawn into the false emotion of this story. Here, the ending just reeks of pretension and emotional manipulation—making you care about something that through no evidence from the story you should care about.
In conclusion, moments are experienced by all which prove to be great and important moments in a person’s life—sometimes these are moments which make us look at the world and/or ourselves in a new light, and sometimes these moments cause us to change our attitude or outlook on a particular subject. In the poem Ground Swell, by Mark Jarman, published in 1997, there is a very great, and very clear example of this; however, in a short story by Sherman Alexie published in 2000 entitled “Class,” the example we want to be there actually isn’t, but in fact is lost (if ever it was there) in a prose that screams superficial and false. I have argued, successfully I hope, my stance on each of these literary works regarding these moments, or lack thereof.