From Tin House Winter 2017, Issue 74
It’s hard to write funny stories with happy endings. Honestly, it’s damn near impossible. In Tin House’s “Mendelssohn,” Seth Fried writes one of the more entertaining and silly stories of 2017. This tale of a father’s great hunt against a large and cunning raccoon defies many of check marks that publishers look for in modern literary fiction. In today’s short story world where seemingly every character has cancer, the style of “Mendelssohn” was particularly refreshing.
Fried writes from the perspective of a grown man looking back at the most formative months of his childhood—the months when Mendelssohn terrorized the local street of Oldberry. The tone of the story rests firmly in the comedic, with little jokes and funny moments sprinkled throughout. Certain places provide conflict, but generally Fried keeps the story lighthearted.
Mendelssohn Terrorizes the Neighborhood
The short story begins after a night of rampage by Mendelssohn. Neighbors wander the block in shock, surveying the damage. Bins get left dented in the street; trash flutters across the neighborhood. The
The father uses the attacks as a diversion from his otherwise boring life as a retiree. He designs elaborate, expensive and original traps in the hopes of waylaying the creature. Mendelssohn proceeds to destroy invention after invention, destroying his equipment or avoiding traps while gorging on trash.
Dad versus Mendelssohn
The narrator’s father, a highly intelligent man takes on the duty of capturing Mendelssohn after the racoon rampages through every trash clan on the block. At twenty-eight, he invented a gas compressor required in modern refrigerators, making him rich free from work for the rest of his life. Effectively retired, he lives aimlessly until a project catches his interest. Mendelssohn becomes his day-to-day tasks.
The father is a funny blend between a McGuyver type and a Sherlock Holmes. Seth Fried makes sure to use these tropes for humorous effect, but he also humanizes the father by making his traits both strengths and weaknesses. He has a great sense of humor, he’s good with his hands, has a flare for engineering, and he has an excellent work ethic once he finds something that makes him passionate. He’s also bored, obsessive, eccentric, and manic.
Mendelssohn’s Legend Grows
What starts as an ironic hunt after Mendelssohn fast becomes an outright rivalry. He names the raccoon as a joke, but over the course of the narrative, the creature takes a mythical place in the household as the father designates it as his fiercest and most worthy adversary. He views Mendelssohn like an Ancient Greek warrior might. One of them must conquer the other. Whether he returns victorious or on his own shield, the father respects his nemesis and even a defeat at the creature’s hands would still be an honor.
After a series of hilarious attacks and resultant arms races among the neighborhood fathers, the narrator’s dad finally catches Mendelssohn. They journey together to some distant boonies and release the creature into the wild as the father finally basks in his victory.
Seth Fried Captures the Reminiscent Story
“Mendelssohn” finishes as a frame narrative, with the son’s adult reflection on those important months of his childhood. They stood out to him as emblematic for who his father was and how he’d remember him. In the present, the narrator reveals his father’s sickness, but it doesn’t become a sad moment that might be expected. Instead, the son looks back at when the two were
Like a funny story told at a funeral, the story is a raucous emotional high throughout. At the end, it tempers and becomes reflective. Perhaps a bit sad, but more a representation of processing loss and coming to accept it. Very few, if any stories can foster this emotional swing in the reader. I only have that kind of emotional weight when remembering love ones, but I felt it in this story, too. A strong story in 2017, go out and find it and read it—it will be worth your while.