So far, this is the best story that I have read this year. I know that it is only January 14, but that doesn’t make my statement any less true. “Herbie” puts Freese on par with some of my favorite literary authors, Sherman Alexie, Steve Almond, and A.S. Byatt, to name a few. I was thinking of only reading a couple more stories in this collection before moving on. Now, well, I feel more motivated.
Herbie is the story of male anger and frustration and how easily it can be passed from one generation to the next. It began with a scene where Herbie is watching his father shine his shoes. The conversation is powerful and sums up, in my mind, the tone of the story. Here is the end of that conversation:
“You just don’t do a half-assed job, that’s all.”
“But, why Dad?”
“I don’t know why…You do it because you just do it.”
It is all there. The young male confusion about how life works. Herbie’s question is rooted in his desire to understand his place in the world. The question weighs heavy on Herbie, “What is my purpose?” In addition to Herbie’s confusion, the father struggles to understand his son and to articulate his own actions and purpose mingled with an adult’s anger over the inescapable futility everyday chores.
The story progresses and Herbie gets it in his mind to start an afternoon shoe-shining stand with a friend. While they are out buying supplies, Herbie will not open up shop until they have all the right equipment. If Herbie is going to shine shoes, he knows one thing for sure; he is not going to do a half-ass job of it. Herbie is forced, he and his friend are out of money, to ask his father for enough to buy shoe cleaner.
His father is angry. No son of his is going to shine shoes. His son’s only job is going to school. He is so angry and so incapable of expressing his opinion and thoughts to his son that he shakes. He eventually hits Herbie.
Herbie doesn’t understand any of it. He is more determined than ever to try to shine shoes, an obvious but misguided attempt to do something, anything to make his father proud.
I’m telling you, the story is good. The miscommunication and what is not said in story make it a gem that I hope doesn’t get lost in the shuffle.
Freese, Mathias B. “Herbie.” Down to a Sunless Sea. Tucson, Arizona: Wheatmark, 2007.