My grandfather, in the last year of his life, lived in a halfway house. His whole life, he was a drunk. He was made to live in the halfway house after my mom threw him out of her house. What happened was one night he showed up plastered drunk and didn’t have a house-key, so he threw a wooden patio-chair through her front window. My mom, frightened awake, thinking she was being robbed, called the cops. They found my grandfather sleeping on the couch and, on the coffee table, a few grams of heroin. I would visit him in the halfway house, sneaking in a fifth of Jack, and we’d get drunk. Drunk in the halfway house. His room was spare of any decoration. One wall was a thin office partition, making one room two. No closet. We’d stay up late watching his foot-wide old box TV. The antenna received snowy versions of syndicated 90’s shows I somewhat remember from my childhood. And I would wonder if there were in other rooms in other homes two separate generations of sons sharing similar moments like this. My grandfather kept all of his things in a backpack—house rules were if he was caught using again, he’d be thrown out, would be given only ten minutes to get all his shit together, and leave. So he had it always together. My grandfather never left the halfway house. He bled inside, the doctor said. Bled inside the halfway house. We got really drunk one night, and I blacked out and fell asleep. I wasn’t allowed stay there, so my grandfather had to wake me up. Saying my name, he grabbed my shoulder, shaking me. Still asleep, I somehow grabbed his hands with my hands, stopping the shaking, and all at once I felt how fragile his hands were. I realized then that if I had held his hands any tighter I would have broken all of the bones in both of our bodies.
Review by Michael Istvan
Denis Johnson died this spring, and it is good to see his spirit live on through visceral tales of desperate and disaffected individuals on the lower rungs of society. Groesbeck’s “Halfway House,” which reveals a grandson’s multifaceted connection to his addict grandfather, is such a tale. Its conversational tone—“get his shit together,” “what happened was one night”—together with its reliance upon nothing but concrete images—throwing a chair through a window, clutching the brittle hands of an old man—allows us to lose ourselves in the emotional subject matter, undistracted by the studious abstractions by which some writers pressure us to focus on certain aspects over others.
Characteristic of Johnson’s work, Groesbeck’s “Halfway House” resists saying all that Groesbeck has to say. Such restraint, a sign of a mature writer confident in the reader’s capabilities, makes for a suggestive piece, one that says much more than it literally says and thus one that invites rereading. So much about “Halfway House” invites rereading. Readers will want to relive the wide range of sentiments—nostalgia, rage, love, fear, disgust, surprise, trust, pity, shame, expectation—bursting forth in such a compact space, bursting forth even as the removed tone of the speaker leaves little room for sappiness. Readers will want to reread the piece to figure out its mysteries. Not only is there the general mystery—common to so many well-endowed works—of figuring out why exactly, how exactly, the story manages to dredge up so many emotions, there are more specific mysteries as well. The big one, of course, is contained in the last sentence. Instead of saying that if he held his grandfather’s brittle hands any tighter he would break his grandfather’s hands, the speaker thwarts the reader’s expectation—thwarts cliché—by saying that he would break all the bones in both of the their bodies if he held his grandfather’s brittle hands any tighter. If he clings any closer to his grandfather, both are done for. That seems to be the idea. But why exactly? On the one hand, the speaker’s visits are killing his grandfather: he brings along whiskey despite his grandfather’s bleeding ulcer. On the other hand, the speaker’s visits are killing the speaker: he is further habituating himself to the addict lifestyle of his grandfather. Much more than this ought to be said, of course, to unpack the insights enfolded in the mystery.
In a work as colorful and accessible and moving as “Halfway House,” the criticisms cannot help but be relatively trivial. Aside from some consistency issues that would have been resolved after further proofreading (for instance, consistency of contractions: “he’d” one time and yet “I would” at another time), and aside from some moments that would have benefited from more concrete details (for instance, detailing some of the belongings that the grandfather keeps in his backpack and listing some of the 90s shows rerunning on the old TV—perhaps shows with functional grandfather-grandson relationships for humorous counterpoint), “Halfway House” is wordier than it has to be. Here are a few instances. There is little need for the speaker to say that he blacked out and fell asleep, especially when the next sentence makes clear that he had to be woken up before anyone found out that he had spent the night. There is little need to say “my grandfather never left the halfway house.” Simply “my grandfather never left” will suffice at the point in question. If the box TV has bunny-ear antennae, there is no need to describe it as “old.” Since it is already clear that the grandfather is a drunk, simply saying that he came back to the house plastered instead of “plastered drunk” will suffice. Telling the reader that the patio chair is “wooden” is irrelevant, and perhaps distracting. To be sure, it being wooden explains how a patio chair can break a window. But all the reader needs to know is that it went through (which would imply that it is made of something hearty). More significantly, the crescendo of drama at the end of the story would rise higher, in my opinion, if we pruned a bit—especially the prefatory fluff in the last sentence, saying simply “If I had held his hands any tighter I would have broken all of the bones in both of our bodies” rather than saying “I realized then that if I had held his hands any tighter . . .” The drama would be heightened even more if we went simply with “our bodies” instead of “both of our bodies.” The reader is not going to miss the odd fact that the speaker is talking about the two bodies.
It is a matter of debate, of course, whether economy is to be valued in creative writing. I think that it is—unless, of course, violating parsimony is part of the artistic effect. Groesbeck clearly values economy, at least for this piece. One of the chief virtues of his story, in fact, is that it does so much with so little, which is surely intentional. For this reason, I do not imagine that Groesbeck would object much to my admittedly quick pruning of his story (down about 100 words), which I include below. Although I cleave the piece into three paragraphs, not much besides making the piece friendlier to contemporary eyes is gained by doing so. The paragraphs do make it easier for me, however, to suggest a more radical revision: breaking up the linear unfolding of the story for added drama by switching the first and second paragraphs (and, of course, making the transition tweaks necessary for such a switch—for instance, saying “I’d visit my grandfather in the halfway house” rather than “I’d visit him in the hallway house”).
Review by Laurinda Lind
I found this to be sweet and strong in a gritty way, especially since the narrator seems to be halfway into the same problematic substance usage as the elder in the poem.