MATTHEW KORFHAGE'S "Ours, All of It"
Here's a writing assignment for you: Tell an American story, but not just a story taking place in America, with a display of qualities you perceive to be American. These qualities may include fierce independence, such as a Hammett/Chandler/MacDonald detective; they may include charlatanism, such as a Hawthorne villain; or a twisted spiritualism, such as you might find in an O'Connor story. You may imbue your characters with any number of these or other traits you may consider unique to the American psyche--aspirations to great wealth and fame, ambiguous puritanism, an inclination toward the metaphysical, distrust of large institutions. Any of these characteristics (and many others) would serve your purpose, if you want to populate your story with events and characters that tell an American Story.
But that's not the assignment. The assignment is to, in 5000 words or less, create a story that is not just an exemplary American story, but a story that actually is America. You want to both convey America and include America. You cannot tell this story without presenting America as a character.
What would you write?
I put all this out to suggest a way to think about Matthew Korfhage's "Ours, All of It," because I think that this is the task that Korfhage has set before himself.
The result is difficult, if not impossible, to describe. Here is a farmer with his wife and daughter traveling in their truck, on their way to deliver their harvest. That's really about it, and it all sounds so innocent, so archetypal, until we learn the grain they haul is headed for the trash, essentially, for this is the grain the farmer gets paid not to grow, or to dump should its introduction to the market create a glut.
We all know about this arrangement, how food production is controlled in this country in order to prevent gluts in the market, in order to protect prices. But we also intuit just how painfully un-American this feels to us, having been raised to understand that hard work (and perhaps only hard work) will be rewarded. But the America we live in is nothing if not schizophrenic; I am always intrigued by the rhetoric we hold dearest: We are a free people, Our markets are free, government is not the solution but the problem, we defeated communism. These are our words of comfort, but Korfhage's family farm is real, and the way it flies in the face of something we call the American Dream is all too familiar.
I have to admit that the first time I picked up this story, I saw the title as humorous, grabbing me the way, say, a Moss Hart title might. Then I started reading and was just lit up by the dazzling prose. By the time I got through this mini-masterwork, though, reflecting on the huge gap this country has between its ideals and its realities, knowing that every bit of it belongs to us, I wasn't laughing.
That dazzling prose? Here's the first paragraph:
So suppose the sky that day looked like America, with piled-high clouds wind-mown into furrows of cotton and cropdusting and projected against a luminous, gaping bluescreen firmament, the sparse greens and browns of trees and houses cutting paper-thin relief into the bowed expanse, all of it seeming to scream out the tragic possibilities of wide open spaces even as the sky tucked and buckled down to the land supporting it; and suppose that in the middle of all that America, the one on the ground and not the one above it, there was a mammoth, red, rust-mottled and beveled-edged Ford F-250 going sixty, sixty-five, seventy on a ribbon of blue-black asphalt hugging flush against the low, imperceptible Midwestern lists and sways, and that inside the pick-up there were one father, one mother, and one daughter, each one pale-skinned and sun-freckled under a dull, brown head of hair. So say there were three.