52 Stories #19: “A Brief Moment in the Life of Angus Bethune” by Chris Crutcher.

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[What is #52Stories? Check it out.]

Today’s entry in #52Stories is “A Brief Moment in the Life of Angus Bethune” by Chris Crutcher, recommended by my buddy James on Facebook. This 1989 short story was published in a collection called “Athletic Shorts” and would go on to be the basis for a film adaptation (called Angus), which I believe is James’ favorite movie.

So what did I think? Let’s get to it!

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The Pitch

An unlikely candidate is crowned “Winter Ball King” and is determined to make the most of his big moment: a dance with his lifelong crush.

The Payoff

I have mixed feelings about this one. There are elements of the writing that I really liked, and others that took me out of the moment. Some of the story elements seemed unnecessary, but on the whole they don’t really detract from the narrative. The tone of the story is very early 90’s and clearly geared at middle/high-school-aged kids, so it feels a bit heavier on the “Bart Simpson” snark than I would prefer. (I guess that means I’m an “old man yelling at clouds” now?)

The Takeaways

So what worked? What didn’t? Does this story “get its moment”? Let the spoilers commence!

  • Right off the bat, I was a bit thrown off by the “voice” of the narrator. Angus is a high-school senior in 1989, but his word usage and cultural referents are sometimes a bit older. You could argue he’s very close to his grandfather and spends most of his time with his parents, so it’s not out of the question that he would consistently refer to older cultural icons like Robert Redford or use words like “tomfoolery” unironically. But in the end, it really does sound like a middle-aged man writing the dialogue of an 18 year old. The fact that the songs that factor into the climax of the story would be considered “dad-rock” by even late 80’s standards only emphasizes the age disparity between author and narrator.
  • On top of the weird cultural discussion, there’s the sarcasm. I get it, he’s portrayed as a “tough kid” with a good heart. But even how he mentally describes his parents is pretty mean. I don’t know if Crutcher is consciously or subconsciously channeling Holden Caulfield here, but the thing is, I despise Holden Caulfield.
  • You can definitely tell the story was written 30 years ago, because man, some of the terminology would NOT fly in our current PC culture.
  • Don’t let all this criticism fool you, reader. I did genuinely like Angus as a character. Crutcher presents a flawed but very sympathetic protagonist, who becomes a kind of everyman for those of us who didn’t make prom king or get our “moment.”
  • “All I want is my moment.” This is the driving theme of the story: the pursuit of a perfect moment that will make for a lifelong memory. Angus really needs a “win,” and he’s self-aware enough to know that he won’t get many.
  • There are some really nice set-ups and callbacks in the narration and dialogue: Angus saying he has no illusions that Melissa Lefevre (his dream girl) will be so taken with him she’ll want to leave with him; the discussion of how Angus’ football skill comes from his ability to shadow his opponent and watch his hips to know where to go; his fear of his sweat being off-putting to Melissa. Crutcher creates some delightful symmetry throughout the story with these elements.
  • Angus’ unusual homelife could have been used as a major plot device (and would have, if the story were written more recently), but Crutcher manages to keep it secondary to the dance plotline. The fact that Angus has 2 sets of gay parents, and his relationship with all of them collectively, does inform much of his character in the story (and gets quite a bit of attention in the middle section of the story), but it doesn’t feel like this is the capital-P Point of the narrative.
  • Crutcher employs high-school-movie tropes (the big dance, the football-star bully, the untouchable dream-girl, the nobody who’s thrown into the spotlight by the machinations of others), but he does so in a way that still feels natural–the tropes become touchstones, connecting this story to all the other stories we love in this sub-genre.

In the end, I enjoyed this story, despite its flaws. Crutcher demonstrates he’s a solid writer from a technical standpoint, and he made me cheer for Angus as he “got his moment.” If you’re so inclined, you should check this one out. Not a classic, but not a bad time, either.

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Agree? Disagree? Any observations of your own? Let me know in the comments!

 

2 thoughts on “52 Stories #19: “A Brief Moment in the Life of Angus Bethune” by Chris Crutcher.

  1. I didn’t really catch the (un)timely references when I originaly read the story. I think I somehow have myself the impression the story was actually set in the 70s. It wasn’t until this post when I looked back at the story and realized when it was really set.

    Anyway, I really enjoyed the story, and should probably read it again. The movie has been my favorite since the moment I saw it (I don’t think I even had a favorite before then).

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