Review: The Portable Son

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February 1, 2012 by markstani

Barrett Hathcock’s beautiful short story about teenage betrayal, ‘High Cotton’, first appeared on the consistently great ‘Fried Chicken and Coffee’ website two years ago. Read it here. The story tells of two boys who love to dive in cotton bins in Mississippi, and the challenge their friendship faces as the opposite sex begin to consume an increasing part of their lives.
‘High Cotton’ both begins and underpins Hathcock’s debut short story collection, The Portable Son, which is published in the US by Aqueous Books, and is also available internationally in e-formats, including Kindle.
Its nine stories, of which the gleaming ‘High Cotton’ remains the standout, concern not so much growing up as the uneasy embrace of lower middle-age: a time when college friends and conquests are dispersed, parents are ailing, jobs are boring, and sex is less about thrill and more about need.
Peter, the collection’s continuous character, intersperses awkward flashbacks with trying to get to grips with the monotony of everyday life. He is hanging on in law school while his friends are getting married and making babies. While he is not an especially easy character to like, it is all too easy to identify with his predicament. Hathcock has fashioned a sad reminder of what it’s like to be left alone in the world, even when friends and family are close. It’s also a delightful glimpse of a seldom-seen genteel side of the American south: a world away from dungareed rednecks, where hearts are broken gently, and only memories ache.

‘The Portable Son’ also happens to include, in ‘Nightswimming’, a truly devastating father-and-son birds-and-bees talk. Part of it’s here, courtesy the publisher. The rest of it’s even better, but you’ll have to buy the book for that. Readers of a sensitive disposition, etc etc…

‘Son, you should know that what you’re about to enter is an exciting time. I don’t have to tell you this. You’re about to piss yourself as it is, I can tell. You’re already excited about everything. And I want you to be. I don’t want you to let what’s going on between your Mom and me get in the way of your enjoying yourself for these next few years. We’re all going to work it out and whatever happens, you know that I love you and that’s what’s important. I’ll still be there for you. And I’m going to try not to be jealous or live through you in some way like some fathers do. But I have to admit that the next few years will probably be the best years of your life. You probably have no idea what I’m talking about. That’s okay. Youth’s wasted on the young, anyway. But I want you to remember, want you to remember what I’m about to say: What you’re about to go through will never be repeated. Remember that. It’s precious and brief and it only happens once.
‘We’ll get that new car pretty soon and you probably won’t listen to a word I say afterwards. It’s okay. It’s to be expected. I don’t know where you are, so to speak, but sooner or later, you’ll only smell gasoline and pussy, and anything me or your mother says won’t really compare to those two smells. And I’m not going to tell you to hold it in, son. Your Mom might, but I won’t lie to you: some of the best pussy I ever got was when I was in high school, so I’m not about to pretend that you won’t be involved. But I would tell you to take it slow. Slow Down. Don’t be in such a rush to grow up. Get laid. Get a job. Whatever. But remember to be a kid for a while.’

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