Portrait of a Dive Bar

dive bar tourniquette tuesdays


Read the story @ Cease, Cows.

In “Tourniquet Tuesdays,” author Tori Bond begins by describing the drinking game of the same name (“It involved Wild Turkey and knocking someone out while blindfolded”) and uses this bizarre tradition as the starting point for what turns into a nuanced portrait of a deep-woods dive bar (Ottos’s Bar), its proprietor and patrons, and ultimately the unnamed small town it serves. The story relies on an anonymous third-person narrative voice to expand its view from the wacky barroom game to the plight of working-class, small-town communities and the ennui and confinement that often befall their residents.

Though we can imagine this is a favorite drinking-hole for lots of go-nowhere residents, the only character that appears in any detail is the aforementioned Otto, a volatile, shotgun-toting German immigrant still pained by the (unexplained) loss of his wife.

But this isn’t to say the story is sparse on details. Far from it. In fact, the bar is vividly described, and there are numerous particulars to add depth to the townspeople-narrator (the We voice), so even though we can’t attribute individual details to any one character–since they’re all lumped together–there are numerous details to help the idea of this community crystallize in the reader’s mind. Consider this telling sentence, concerning residents’ feeble (and seemingly unrealistic) attempts to finally escape their small town:

We’d tell ourselves “this week,” no, “next month,” “when I save up a few bucks from working at the machine shop,” or “save up tips from waiting tables at the town diner,” but then the car would break down, or you had to pay for your girlfriend’s abortion or you just had to go on a two-week bender that sucked every last drop of goodness from your aching body.

This piece exhibits a crucial strategy behind good fiction in general and good flash fiction in particular: selection. When it comes to creating vivid, engaging, authentic stories, the challenge isn’t necessarily to collect a wealth of details about a given place or character, but rather to include the most telling or loaded (in a non-cliche way) details to get the most efficient portrayal possible. One or two precise details (i.e. the kind that imply a whole story unto themselves) are usually ideal, while a long list of bland or lazily chosen details may amount to very little.

Consider this set of sketches of a dancer, which I believe has been attributed to Van Gogh:

dancer sketchThis image is a great example from the field of visual art about how a few carefully chosen details can add emotion, movement, and authenticity to an image (or, in our situation, a story). These sparse little sketches show a clear sense (on the artist’s part) of the mechanics of the dancer, her essence and speed and trajectory. Creating a character (or group-character, in the above story’s case), depends on finding the essential qualities that define that character’s personality and circumstances, while also determining which traits are unique and memorable. The image above captures the alignment of ankle and toe, the curve of the back, in a way that is extremely true to the dancer being depicted. In the same way, Tori Bond’s story gets just the right details (abortions, two-week benders, bleary-eyed shotgun rampages in the backyard) to tell us exactly what we need to know about the characters’ temperaments, socioeconomic challenges, sadness, and sense of futility in their lives. As I said, it’s not about how many details, but which details.

Which finally brings me to the essential conflict in the story, which is clearly presented despite the non-narrative structure it’s presented in. The quote above attributes the characters’ problems (in their minds) to their socioeconomic position. But when we read the story closely, it becomes apparent that the story’s overarching challenge–the factor keeping townspeople “stuck” in their present situation–many not be financial so much as fear-based, a problem related to familiarity versus the unfamiliar Outside World.

And here, I suppose, is where we discover a subtextual set of details, implications about the townspeople and Otto about their secrets, their trepidations and perhaps a general sense of inferiority that prevents them from truly pursuing happier lives for themselves. In this way, this story is as tragic as it is comical.


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