"The Bell Ringer" by John Burnside
(originally published in The New Yorker, 3/17/2008)
In both reading and writing, the short story has long been one of my favorite formats. As a writer, it presents a welcome challenge. I personally try to strike a balance between tales that have a definitive beginning, middle, and ending and ones that present just a cross section of a bigger picture. When I recently read "The Bell Ringer" by John Burnside, I was pleased to find both examples in his piece. This is easily one of the best works of short fiction that I've read in a long time.
To me, this is a story that is best described by its opposites: boredom and excitement (exemplified by Matt and Harley); past and present (bell ringing and a brief credit card transaction); and, what I feel is most important in the story, silence and communication (Eva's taciturn acceptance and Martha's nonchalant confession).
Not all of these conflicts are resolved, and that works in the reader's advantage. Would Eva truly be happy if everything worked out in her favor? With just the right amount of background, Burnside creates a character who likely has a lot more issues lurking beneath the surface than we know. The ending is also strikingly effective, for it can be viewed as either a shock or an understandable culmination. If a story or novel is well-written with a straightforward conclusion, that's fine. However, "The Bell Ringer" is straightforward, yet leaves the reader with questions, in the best of ways. The question I posed at the beginning of this paragraph is obvious, but there are more.