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James Purdy

December 2, 2012

“Short Papa” uses the same symbolism to indicate the passage of time and conection to past generations that Pulp Fiction uses: the gift of a watch. The same thing happens in “Short Papa” as in Pulp Fiction, the watch is lost and there is the search for the watch. The search for lost time is just one brief vignette in both collections of stories.

I liked this story even though it was fairly simple with a traditional metaphor. I think James Purdy created enough texture in his story that the use of the watch metaphor wasn’t trite or cliched. The simplicity of the story is deceptive.

Short Papa is given his name because of the short stints he serves in jail. It also can stand for the short stretch in his son Lester’s life in which he is a presence.

“I felt for the first time I was connected with somebody, or something,” Lester says after having received the watch. The missing watch stands in for the missing father, the father who exhanges his own presence in the boy’s life with a present that represents the passage of time, the ineluctable march of time that only goes in one direction. This exchange is irreversible. The fortune teller, the seer of futures, tells Lester that, although he will find his lost watch, his father has died. “I hoped and prayed she was wrong, that she had lied, and that I would not find the watch, for if that part of the fortune was not true, neither would be the other part about the hand of the bestower.”

Although the watch is a reminder that time is short for us all, that it is ticking down the moments until our deaths, it also runs backwards into the past, reminding Lester of his ancestors, and now his father.

I think what this story teaches, as far as craft goes, is that the use of metaphor is a tool. You can use a standard tool to achieve intricate detail. Although the watch is a main feature of the story, maybe a macguffin, it is used to tell the story of Short Papa and Lester.

Questions for the class: What other things are in this story besides the watch? How is the story different by focusing on a young boy as opposed to Pulp Fiction’s adult?

Next week’s story is “The End of Larry’s Wallet” by Todd Hasak-Lowy


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