Short story: “Home”

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“Home,” by Eddie Newton

Appeared in the May 2005 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine

About 4 and 2/3 pages

This story annoyed the crap out of me. The unisex name tricks the reader into assuming Marion is a woman. The avoidance of pronouns for Marion makes for some clumsy phrasing (“Retreating to the kitchen, the search for a snack began”). The reveal of Marion’s true identity is awkward and sudden, and it forces you to go back and reinterpret the earlier passage about the Sugarman, which is all the worse for being written in Marion’s point of view. (The additional reveal that Mabel is a man is just the cherry on the annoyingness cake.)

Now, why do I hate this gimmick so much? I think because it’s a cheat. The reversal of expectations here is mostly about Marion’s feelings of nostalgia and fear, which make it seem like he lives here and is scared of outlaws, rather than wishing he belonged here and being scared of justice. That’s not bad. But there’s no good reason to conceal his gender! I’ll admit it makes him seem slightly more vulnerable, but not enough to make the concealment worthwhile. What’s more, this concealment makes it harder to feel like we’re inside his head, which makes it harder to stay invested in his feelings.*

The reversal should pay off at the end, when we see Marion finally making peace with his regret and nostalgia, as well as getting what he apparently deserves. That should be a moment of bittersweet catharsis. Instead we waste some time figuring out who he is, who his shooter is, who the Almonds were, et cetera. The moment is lost.

*There’s an interesting discussion to be had about how changing the reader’s perception of a character’s gender can make the reader feel betrayed. Does that feeling of betrayal come from arbitrary, overly restrictive cultural customs, like our convention that only girls can wear pink? Or does it come from a true breach of the unspoken contract between writer and reader? “Home” has nothing very interesting to say about gender, though, so I don’t feel conflicted about hating the reveal as much as I do.