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Wednesday, November 11, 2015

"Eight Pieces for the Left Hand" by J. Robert Lennon

Picking up a volume of "The Best American Short Stories - 2015" edited by Michael Chabon, I came across this gem by J. Robert Lennon.  "Eight Pieces for the Left Hand" is written in the form of brief episodes that illustrate amazing twists of fate, random switch of circumstances and an insight into real human fragility.  The one piece that impressed me the most was one relating the story of a poet of "considerable national fame" who had just finished a collection of poems.  The collection was delayed during the revision process and awaited by the publisher and fans with some anticipation.  The poet is arrested for drunk driving and his car is impounded.  With the only manuscript of the work inside the car at the time, and the car and all of its content now owned by the police department (the legality of such matters escapes me at the present time, so I will just suspend my disbelief/skepticism), a long legal battle ensues to recover the manuscript from the car.  In the meanwhile, the poet dies.  After some more years, the publisher comes to an agreement with the police department to have the poems read to an editor over the phone with the idea of having the editor write them down by hand.  The phone call takes place, the poems are set in book form and published to vast critical acclaim, ensuring the poet's place in the cannon of contemporary literature.

Some years pass and eventually the poet's family wins the protracted legal battle against the police department rescuing the original manuscript.  After careful examination, everyone comes to realize that the poems published in book form bare little resemblance to the ones in the original manuscript.  The story conclude this way: "It was not long before a city policeman confessed to having improvised much of the manuscript during its telephone transcription.  His only explanation was that he saw room for improvement and could not resist making a few changes here and there.  Almost immediately, the policeman was asked to leave the force, and the acclaimed book was completely discredited.  The true manuscript was published in its entirety, to tepid reviews."  

And that is how you write an amazing story of real human depth.  I read through the rest of the pieces and they were just as brilliant, but for some reason this one stayed with me.  It would be an understatement to describe it as "clever," for it is far beyond more than that.

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