“Something Pretty, Something Beautiful” by Eric Barnes reads like A Clockwork Orange set in Tacoma, Washington minus Burgess‘ style. The story is full of teenage violence, angst, and a desire for inclusion. Handled by a different writer that combination could be a mess, but Barnes handles these concepts deftly. There is a maturity both in the writing, and in the voice of the narrator, Brian. We learn that he’s telling the story five years after the events take place, and in those five years he’s gained perspective on the past. It’s an appropriate distance.
What may throw some readers off is how time progresses in the story. There are essentially two different narratives occurring at once. The story begins with “We didn’t start breaking into houses to steal things,” in italics and present tense, and continues on for three paragraphs.
Next, there’s a shift back in time and font to when Brian and Teddy were “eight or nine years old.” This shift seems to be there so we imagine the kids’ potential. Brian and Teddy seem innocent. They’re juxtaposed to Coe and Will Wilson (questionable choice of name) who are not their friends at this point, and are more like enemies. If I wanted to be trite, I’d say they were the bad kids.
The narrative in italics that is woven throughout the story is the idealized memory of the break-ins. The moments are dreamy and surreal. No property is destroyed, and with the exception of Coe, no one is hurt. The other narrative is full of violence and domination. There is nothing pretty or beautiful beyond the italics. The four boys operate like a pack of dogs, making sure each one knows his place. Surrounded by drugs and destruction, one wonders where they’ll end up or how they’ll escape? There are opportunities for escape, but to the boys, these seem impossible. Faced with an escalation of crimes they have few options.
One part I thought could be cut was the last four lines of the story.
And now I’d spent five years forgetting.
But Will Wilson is still out there.
He could fine me, I suppose.
Or maybe I could try to go find him.
Each line is a paragraph. Each line seems unnecessary. It would be appropriate if this were a chapter in a novel, but for a short story they just don’t fit. It seems like Barnes is trying to propel the reader forward, but to what?
Overall, “Something Pretty, Something Beautiful” is a haunting story that lets us inside a pack of teenagers as they roam through Tacoma searching for escape, and while it has its flaws, the flaws don’t overwhelm the strengths of the story.