I – Summary –
In “Backpack” by Tony Earley, the chairman of the History Department at orange Academy, John, makes a series of suspicious purchases, packs them all up in a backpack, along with a hidden firearm, and makes ready to act on his plan. His wife, his old college sweetheart, Charlotte, is surprised when he wakes up early the next morning. They have a somewhat tense conversation, in which John lies about his plans for the day. Once she leaves for work, John embodies his new alter-ego, which he has named Jimmy Ray Gallup. Jimmy is the opposite of John. Jimmy was given nothing, he was not successful. John texts his wife and daughter, then drives off to the bus station.
He leaves his car, and his life, behind in the parking lot of the bus station, and orders a ticket to Indianapolis. After getting on the bus, Jimmy Ray Gallup sits next to a woman and her baby. The woman is Carmen (a bit younger than John’s daughter); her daughter, Adele. They ride together most of the way, and Jimmy / John shares some about himself. He worked as a ship’s mechanic (he didn’t), he’s always wanted to see the great lakes (maybe). Carmen shares some in return. She had travelled to see her boyfriend Brandon, and finds his second girlfriend, six months pregnant. When the bus stops and they wait for the next bus, John begins to imagine his previous life falling apart in his absence. The panic in his daughter when he is found missing, his wife calling the police. They get onto the next bus, a much nicer bus, and they try to sleep through the night. John stays awake, as is usual for him, and remembers the first time he talked with his wife. They speak a bit more and become a bit closer over the course of the second bus ride.
At Carmen’s stop, John reconsiders his plan. He feels he has gone too far to go back, but he doesn’t want to continue. Carmen invites him to come home with her, and he accepts. There he meets Carmen’s sister C.J., who takes an immediate disliking to him. They return to Carmen’s trailer, and get ready for the night. She can’t sleep, and asks Jimmy if he wants to watch porn with her. He refuses, telling her to please go to sleep, and she backs off. The next day, C.J. interrogates Jimmy about his intentions with her sister, and John assures her that he has done nothing to her and has no intention to. Carmen goes through his stuff during the night, finds out who he is, DM’s his wife, just does a total doozy on his plan. His plan, which he confesses to Carmen, to take a blow up raft on Lake Superior, tie himself to a cinder block, puncture the raft, and shoot himself. He gives up on his plan and awaits his wife’s arrival at Carmen’s trailer. During the wait, he thinks about a concert they went to together, and Charlotte appears to recollect her husband.
Chronic Tension – John’s relationship with his wife
Acute Tension – John’s attempt on his own life
II – What is compelling –
What makes this story interesting is the withholding of information.
The fact that John intends to kill himself is not given at the beginning of the story. All of the details about his preparations and his intentions are given impartially, in a distant voice. It is only in the quiet moments that the narration comes closer into the third limited, and we’re given insight into John’s thoughts. Leaving his intentions unspecified, and neglecting to give reason to his actions allows for speculation on where and why he is going. He is probably not running from anything, though maybe he is. The items he has, especially the gun, give some tension to his journey. Why does he feel he needs the gun? What is he planning to do with the rest of the objects? The author leaves all of the questions somewhat open, adding the tension to keep people reading the story.
In addition, the downtime spent in John’s head gives us a peek of his state of mind. He is quite calm. A bit more contemplative than some, perhaps, but calm nonetheless. We know how he is operating inside, and that information is gained purely through his thought. Since we don’t know that these are John’s last couple days, and that John wants to live them as Jimmy Ray Gallup, and that John doesn’t want anyone to ever find his body, we can get a sense of how John is feeling without the preconceptions we bring to a suicide. If the story began by divulging the fact that John wants to shoot himself, all the moments we get inside his head become melodramatic. It becomes a tragedy. If this story became a melodramatic tragedy, it would be a tragic turn of events.
III – What to steal –
There were a couple moments in this story where it was unclear whether John was speaking as himself or through Jimmy Ray Gallup. This was very interesting. Not knowing who the narrator was speaking as added a compelling level of ambiguity to the story. Combined with the third limited point of view, unreliable information about the narrator can make for some interesting moments of speculation.
– Writing exercise –
Give your character an objective without stating it. You may allude to it, but only with light strokes. Use the time before the character comes to their objective to fill out the character. Get to know him or her. Show how the character is feeling on their way to complete this task. Once the character is well and thoroughly developed, reveal the objective.
– Or –
Write a character, then create an alternate character that they speak through. Have them interact with someone as their alternate self, try to recreate the ambiguity of information. Is the information that your character sharing about themself true or is it part of their alias?
IV – Questions –
Why do you think John was driven to this suicide?
Has John truly come down from the edge at the end of the story?
Has he returned to his wife?