I love short stories, and I read a lot of them every year- dozens of stories that I find in magazines, on the web, and even a bunch that are emailed directly to me by the Library of America folks. And, on top of those, I read six or eight short story compilations a year.
I, in fact, find a good short story to be every bit as satisfying as a good novel, and I am convinced that it is probably more difficult to write a good short story than it is to write a novel of similar quality. But, for a number of reasons, some stories leave me cold. Perhaps I fail ever to engage with the characters in a story, or the setting is so sparsely presented that I never get a feel of "place" from the story, or the story is just so vague (especially its ending) that it leaves me shaking my head in confusion. It is this last type of story that particularly irritates me - especially when I've gone back and read the story two or three more times searching for the clues I may have missed and I end up as confused as I was after the first reading.
That's what happened to me tonight with Joyce Carol Oates's "Hey Dad," a four-page story I found in an old August 2012 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.
"Hey Dad" is written from the first person perspective of a young Rhodes Scholar being awarded a Bachelor of Arts degree on the same stage that his father is receiving an Honorary Doctorate upon. The young man is fully aware of his father's presence and has a little surprise cooked up for his father for the second time he walks by the old man's on-stage seat.
The problem is that the old man does not know of his son's existence, having urged, all those years ago, that the boy's mother abort the pregnancy or lose him. She chose, instead, to keep the baby and move on with her life. Now, in rather ominous prose the young man speaks of his father's frailties and the surprise he has planned for him. Early on, he says that his father has nothing to fear, but as the story progresses, the young man's tone changes to a more and more sinister one.
And then there's this, the last two sentences of the story: "Whatever I may be carrying inside my black robe, I will have shifted in such a way that I can grip its handle. Tight. And I will say - Hey Dad it's me."
Maybe it's me, maybe I'm just a poor reader, but I really don't like open-ended endings to short stories - and this is a case in point. Was the young man trying to spring a heart attack on his father, was he going to be him to death with a weapon of some sort, or is it all a big joke on the old man? Damned if I know...