Tom Paine’s “Oppenheimer Beach”
Before this year’s planning for Writers’ Fest began, I’d never heard of Tom Paine. As Élan’s Junior Fiction Editor, I’m quite ashamed knowing I missed out on his work for so long. After some internet digging to find one of his short stories, I can confidently say I’m ready to attend his Writers’ Fest workshop.
In addition to the excerpts found in Paine’s profile on the Writers’ Fest website, I also read a longer piece of his titled “Oppenheimer Beach.” I really enjoyed this story for its introspective and explorative narrative. The protagonist is a war photographer named Hugh, and he’s tired of life—so tired he drags his son (pulling him from a prestigious school) and wife (despite their rocky relationship) to a vacation in western India. While away from his family, Hugh runs across a young native boy who helps him look deeper into his emotional state.
Immediately into the piece, the first three characters above are quickly defined. The son, Magnus, stays inside on his iPad. He’s established through dialogue as someone who can’t relate well to his father, rambling lines like, “If he sees me use it on some of his nature, if he sees what it can do even out here, then maybe he’ll want to try it, and we can use it together on our trip. I just think he needs to see it work on what he likes, like a local tree or unusual bird or something...”
Hugh’s wife, Alfhild, is also shown as a contrast with her laid-back parenting approach and naked yoga stretches. Through dialogue, it’s revealed that her and Hugh’s marriage is falling apart: “I get that you have foolishly burned all your bridges and given up your photojournalism career... And I get that in six months or less, having completed this forced ‘end of the world let our child see it for the last time odyssey,’ we’ll return completely broke to New York, Magnus will be a year behind in his studies, we will probably divorce, and I will find a wealthy new lover, younger perhaps and more limber, who likes to play computer games with my son, and doesn’t walk around drowning in guilt...”
Hugh himself is the most complex, with his vacation-decision and overall disconnect towards his family. He’s obviously wound up with repressed emotions, relying heavily on beers and joints to pass the days by. He’s further defined by Oppie, the native Rastafarian boy. It says a lot when their interactions are more natural and equal compared to Hugh and Magnus’s. Oppie is essentially a foil, but even he is characterized with motivations and experiences: “You can tell everything about a person by how they respond to looking into the black eye of a squid, or how the squid respond to them.”
“Oppenheimer Beach” is so well-crafted in the way character relationships and deeper concepts are established through minute details that pile up on each other. Everything in the story matters, from the ambiguity of Oppie’s true family to the fate of Hugh’s marriage. Even the ending itself doesn’t resolve much, but stands as a symbolic representation of Oppie’s closeness with a reef, away from tourist-tainted land.
-Seth Gozar, Junior Fiction Editor