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Friday, August 6, 2010

The big dog is not always the one doing the barking

I'm working on Vanishing Act again, and I came across this piece:

“Yeah, yeah, we heard you kid. You’re not doing it. I’m not talking to you; I’m talking to your old man.” To Steven, he added, “Tell me this wasn’t the easiest money you ever made. What do I always say? Kids are natural born con artists.”

“Says the natural born bullshit artist.”

Why were they staring at him? Oh Jesus, he hadn’t said that out loud, had he?

Chris’s father narrowed his eyes. “Boy, what have I told you about talking to your Uncle Danny like that?”

Chris wished he could disappear right now, but of course that wasn’t how things worked. Fine, then. There was no point in apologizing or backing down. He’d said what he’d said. They wouldn’t forget; they wouldn’t forgive.

“He’s not my uncle.” Chris noticed his hands shaking, and he dropped them into his lap to keep the men from seeing. “He’s not your brother. He’s just your loser friend. And if you were any sort of father, you’d take my side when your buddy comes around trying to make me do bad stuff.” Tears streamed down his face by the time he finished, but he didn’t care. Much. He wiped his nose on a napkin and dropped it on the table in front of him.

Steven’s eyes flashed and he backed his seat away from the table. Chris thought he would get up and beat him right there, but Danny grabbed his forearm and kept him from standing. “Relax, Steve-O,” he said, looking around at the mostly empty restaurant. “The kid’s pulled off his first big job and he’s feeling his oats. He figures he’s a man now, and he can tell us off like an equal.”

Looking around once more, he leaned in and said, “Ain’t that right, boy? You think you’re a man now? Think you’re a big deal? Think you did all those jobs by yourself? Who gave you that busted iPod? Who found the Adamses and set you up there in the first place? Who comes up with damn near every idea for the three of us? Who carried all that stuff out of the Adams’s house while you pretended to be a private school brat? We all did this kid, not just you. You don’t think about what anyone else does because you can’t see past the edge of your own nose. Just like a typical little kid. You think you’re a man now, gonna call me by my first name? You think you’re my equal? Well let me tell you when you’ll be my equal. The day you can kick my ass is the day I’ll treat you like my equal. Until then, you’re nothing but a snot-faced brat.”

Danny flicked Chris’s mucus-filled napkin onto his lap for emphasis and lowered his voice further. “You call me whatever you want if it makes you feel big. You go ahead and tell us what you will and won’t do to help out. But I’ll tell you something: you can’t be with us only part-time. You’re either all in, all the way, or don’t expect to share in the rewards. Don’t go to war with me, little boy. You’ll lose.”

As I worked on this, I realized that there are several instances in the book where Chris's father is ready to physically punish Chris for not showing Danny enough respect, and is prevented from doing so by Danny. I questioned myself when I noticed it. Why did they keep ending up in this pattern? Was I too lazy to write the ugly scene that would otherwise have come next? Is there a nice streak in Danny I've never noticed?

Well, there are plenty of unpleasant scenes in the book, so that's not it. And Danny's definitely the bad guy (or rather, the worse guy). So what's up with his seeming benevolence? For some reason, Danny's actions felt right in these instances, but I hadn't really thought about why.

Once I'd noticed the pattern, though, I thought about it and I think I see why it is the right behavior for Danny. If Chris's father beats Chris into submission for Danny, he's essentially defending Danny. Danny's alpha dog status would be challenged by this. By preventing Chris's father from harming him, Danny asserts superiority over both. He's telling Chris's father what to do, and he's acting magnanimous toward Chris. Only the king can be magnanimous, right? (Or the powerful, anyway. Notice the root word, magnus: great.)

Danny gets his revenge--he always does--but he does it his way, not by having someone defend him.

I didn't think about all this consciously before, but I think I made the right choice by Danny because I was in character. It can be hard to write a bad guy because I don't want to admit that I've got that somewhere inside of me to pull out. But everybody, I think, has it in them to be selfish, petty, and just generally shitty to other people. Maybe instead of being afraid to face this in ourselves, it's more useful to revel in having a safe place to put on this mask and play.

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