Monday, February 11, 2008

Short Story Monday VI - "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been"

I read two more stories from Small Avalanches this afternoon and one of those stories, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been,” had, I think, as big an impact on me as any story or novel I have ever read…period. It is the story of a fifteen-year-old girl, a real beauty, who is at that age where rebellion and keeping secrets from her parents are second nature, tendencies that often combine with a sense of excitement about the opposite sex to make that time one of the most dangerous that a female will ever face.

Adolescence is tough on both sexes, of course, but girls rapidly approaching womanhood, usually with the feelings and emotions of women but with the emotional maturity of girls, are particularly vulnerable to the types of dangers that can end in major catastrophe for themselves and their families.

That is the kind of story that Joyce Carol Oates tells in “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been.” Connie, a young girl just starting to explore life on her own and in the company of her best friend, manages to be left alone at home for an entire Sunday while her parents and older sister attend a family barbeque. When a man she vaguely remembers seeing at a teen dining spot the night before shows up at her door, knowing everything about her and her family, she is completely unprepared to defend herself, emotionally or otherwise.

Watching this man manipulate and confuse her is like watching a snake trap and eat a little mouse. It is horrifying and fascinating at the same time. Hard as it is to watch, it feels like one of life’s lessons: the weak have to be prepared and constantly on guard if they are to survive in a world of predators only too eager to take advantage of their weakness and naiveté. Ms. Oates is sending a message, teaching a lesson, to the Young Adult readers for whom this short story collection was created. Perhaps this one had a particularly strong impact on me because I am the father of two daughters and I feel blessed that they made it through those teenage years with no real damage done. But stories like this one remind me that even the best parenting skills are no guarantee that young women will survive those dangerous years. Blind luck has to be on your side as well.

This is one story that I will be thinking about for a long, long time. I will not soon forget the young girl caught in a trap she barely recognizes, nor the creep who had so obviously used the exact same trap on others before her.

Rated at: 5.0

(About the photo) The photo is of a very young Laura Dern who has become a very fine actress. Laura made her film debut, from what I understand, in the role of "Connie" from this Oates short story which was renamed "Smooth Talk" by Hollywood. Also, from what I have read, Ms. Oates was not exactly thrilled with the ending that Hollywood tacked onto her story, completely changing the whole mood of the piece probably out of some misdirected notion that her ending may be too much for the film audience.


  1. I was really mad at the ending of "Smooth Talk". If I had been JCO, I would've been livid. Laura Dern was just right for the part as was the guy who played Arnold know he's really the Devil...his boots are too big because he's got cloven hooves.

  2. I never saw it nor read the story. I thought it was a young Daryl Hannah until you said otherwise.

  3. I hadn't thought about that "devil" bit, bybee...interesting thought, that.

    Yeah, the movie ending is so different from that of the short story that it just completely changes the whole point...makes you wonder why they bothered if they were going to chicken out at the end.

  4. Now that you mention it, John, I do see the resemblance.

    It's a spooky story, John, right in line with lots of JCO's work...if you read it, let me know what you think.

  5. I think the movie was named "Smooth Talker" with Laura Dern and Treat Williams. I thought it was a fine movie, even if it wasn't what the author intended.

  6. Tony, according to all the links I find on Google, it really is "Smooth Talk." I haven't seen the movie but it has to have been drastically different in tone from the story with the ending they tacked onto it. That said, it might still be a good movie, of course, just not nearly as powerful as the original story.