"Twenty Grand" by Rebecca Curtis

New Yorker fiction -- December 19, 2005 issue

yellow light
Retrospective child narrator, vigorous plot, nice characterization, and okay writing combine here to make up a pretty solid story, but one I do have a few problems with. It's a story of poverty and desperation leading to a tragic mistake -- perfect for Christmas in that "Gift of the Magi" way -- but it's the specifics of the mistake that I wasn't quite sold on.

There is a coin, an old Armenian coin, that the narrator's mother has.
It was silver and heavy. One one side was a man with a craggy profile, a square crown, and one sleepy, thick-lidded eye, and on the other was a woman. The woman was voluptuous, wearing a gown, and holding something in her outstretched hand -- maybe wheat. The coin wasn't a perfect circle, and its surface was pocked. But it had been my mother's mother's, and she kept it in her purse.
Never mind the fact that she keeps this one keepsake from her mother in her purse, or that her mother never told her just how valuable it is. I can swallow that. I'm not sure I can swallow the fact that, despite the story being all about how poor the family is (the father works away on a military base, where he often stays, and they have to pass through a toll-booth to visit him to weasel $5 more bucks from him for groceries), she never once had the coin appraised. Oh, but her husband did. He found out it was worth ... have you guessed? Twenty grand. But he never told her this, despite their poverty. And he let her carry this thing around in her purse. Okay? I did mention the toll-booth, I believe.

Also, I wasn't aware that single-parent military families in the 1970s were so poor they suffered chronic, serious food insecurity. Why are they so poor? Only two kids, and the land their house is on was given to them free by the husband's mother...

So - but this is a neat little plot. But to have a neat little plot, you'd better get things like motivations and plausible actions down cold. Is this situation plausible? I just don't quite think so, and it somewhat ruins the otherwise good story for me. And maybe there were Armenian coins worth $20,000 in 1979, but this morning, the most valuable coin on eBay? Buy It Now for $14,500. I'm not saying ... I'm just saying.

Otherwise the piece is pretty absorbing. It has a sweet last line. The obsession with the coin leads the parents to leave the kids at the toll plaza long enough for them to escape and try to go to McDonald's (with what money? never mind) and be picked up by a couple who listen to their exaggerations about how poor they are and they've only had crackers to eat. Kids missing ... suddenly $20,000 fades in importance. But the kids are found immediately and there is a comic police station scene. All enjoyable. But... I just can't get past the fact that the author didn't convince me about that damned coin.


Saltwater Farmer said...

I agree. The story had plenty going for it, but the implausibility of the husband knowing it's a $20K coin and his failure to share that knowledge with his wife sent my bullshit meter into the red zone. Curtis lost me right there and even the strong ending couldn't save the story.

props said...

Also, I found it hard to believe that the six year old knew what "20 grand" meant; also, the toll booth agent "could tell" that the coin was "worth money?" Maybe the story was supposed to be some kind of fable. Could it have been a true story?