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Ed Lebowitz’s Critique of The Neighborhood Commandant by Liz Dolan ©

In Uncategorized on December 20, 2011 at 12:46 am

The theme of this story is embodied in the title, “The Neighborhood Commandant.” “Commandant” refers to a military officer in charge of a particular force or institution. In this story, the main character, Gertrude Meganhardt, is a loner who lives full-time in a resort community where most owners come only in summer. She is a self-appointed commandant in that she enforces the rules of courteous behavior in her part-time neighbors, keeps alert for problems and notifies the police when she sees them. The author’s intent is to demonstrate the natural and logical consequences of this attitude, especially in someone who is angry about being mistreated in her past.

What I liked most about “The Neighborhood Commandant” was the tension that developed in mid-story and sustained to the end. When the narrator said, “and for the first time she felt fear,” I was already feeling fear. By this point in the story, we know Gertrude is quirky. I inferred that her neighbors appreciated Gertrude’s attentiveness, even if she is a busybody. As such, when the intruder threatens Gertrude, I cared for her and wanted her to get away. From this point, the tension is sustained as we learn more about Gertrude’s personal life, poise under pressure and potential for violence. Although seemingly conflicted at first, she is resolute and kills the intruder in cold blood. She does not let sentiment get in the way of her survival. What happens after she kills the intruder is left to the reader’s imagination, which I think is an excellent ending. The balance between “show” and “tell” is also excellent. I liked this story a lot. Congratulations.

I found few opportunities for improvement because the story is so good. However, I will go line-by-line and nitpick. I hope you find my observations helpful. Of course, what you don’t find helpful, please disregard as I liked the story and am only quibbling here.

a.   The narrator refers to the main character by different names throughout the story. First, she’s Gertrude, then she’s Gert, then she’s Gertie. This does not appear to represent a growing familiarity with the character on the part of a first person narrator, which I could understand. I couldn’t figure out a logical reason, but it called attention to itself, which took out of the story. I would consider saying “Gertrude Meganhardt” in the first reference in line 2 and either becoming consistently Gertrude, Gert, Gertie or Ms. Meganhardt after that depending on how familiar you want the narrator to be.

b.   At the end of the first paragraph, it says that “If a neighbor dumped a useful item like a swivel chair on wheels, Gert would sniff it out and push it through the streets with her two tiny mutts perched on the seat before anyone else could get to it.”  I wasn’t sure what she did with it, so I didn’t understand what to make of this fact. Did she use it, sell it, donate it or dump it. Just before this, the reader is shown evidence of her fastidiousness. However, if she only did this for useful items, then it must be that she’d leave the useless items on the street, which may be out of character. In any case, I think you could clarify this, so the reader understands why it’s important and what it says about her.

c.   “She pushed back her brunette hair” tells me only that she has brown hair. What I want to know at this point is how old Gertrude is. Is she an old biddy or is she young and disillusioned? So, could you tell us just a little more, like, “She pushed her (dyed) brunette hair off her (craggy) (age worn) face,” That would tell us she’s trying to look younger, which would let us know she’s of a certain age early in the story and has at least one vanity. I would like to be able to picture her better as the action progresses.

d.    At the end of page one, the antagonist was “wiping his hands on the legs of his pants” as he approached the main character. I wondered why. It becomes apparent that he isn’t really a plumber, but he was outside, so he wasn’t just washing his hands. What was he wiping off his hands?

e.   “Ain’t cha gonna smoke it?” is written phonetically to convey, I believe, uneducated slang. “Ain’t” is probably enough. This happens several times in the story. It took me out of the story.

f.     Why the narrator used of the phrase “smoke(s)” instead of cigarettes is unclear to me. I figured it was a pack of cigarettes but wondered why the narrator didn’t say cigarette(s.) Later on she does and I like it better.

g.   The sentence “He smiled and lit his own.” Makes sense, but I thought maybe it could go as the first sentence in the next paragraph because that’s his speech not hers.

h.   I believe there should be a comma in the sentence: “I haven’t seen any water, and I cut through his property everyday.

i.     Perhaps a new paragraph should start after the quotation, “Whatever rings your chimes.”

j.     I was wondering about reversing the dependent and independent clauses in one sentence, which now reads: Although Gert still missed her…, they weren’t close. To me it would make more sense to say: Although they weren’t close, Gert still missed her. I’m not sure how you work in the rest of the information in the sentence, perhaps with another sentence.

k.   The following sentence seemed important in that it warns the reader about what is going to happen. “Sentiment always got her into trouble.” If sentiment as opposed to just being the busybody that she is was what got Gertrude into trouble in this story, then I’d say she needs to be more sentimental at the end, and that sentimentality has to be directly responsible for either making a murderer out of her or getting her raped. She would have to show a warmer response to the intruder, perhaps invite him to her home etc., but this would change the story. Otherwise, you could leave the sentence out since you just said she wasn’t sentimental about it. In any case, if you want to make this point, you might do so with a bit less ominousness. For the rest of the story after this statement, I was looking for her to become sentimental and get into trouble over it. She certainly got into trouble, but not to my thinking because of sentimentality.

l.     “She’d been watching that show every night at since before Alex Trebeq was host.” “At” shouldn’t be there.

m. She stepped inside and called Jim again. “Are you here, Jim?” “Show” or “tell.” I suggest you leave out either “and called Jim again,” or “Are you here, Jim?”

n.   “She was so startled she stepped back.” I would not say she was so startled. It’s a “tell” phrase when a “show” phrase would be better. What happens when a person is startled? The reader will then figure it out.

o.   “Nuthin’…” These sorts of phonetic misspellings to convey a way of speaking don’t really add value to the story for me. That the intruder is lower class should be clear from his diction and not require the odd spelling. I mentioned this before and won’t mention it again.

p.   The correct spelling of “alright” is “all right,” so I’m confused as to whether this is another way of showing the intruder’s lack of education. However, why would he know how the author spelled “all right” or “alright” since the sound of both is the same? Okay, maybe I have mentioned it one more time.

q.   I think that if Gert made a conclusion about the policeman based on his looks, it would be better stated when she first sees him rather than after he leaves. After he leaves, she would base her conclusion on his behavior, I believe, rather than his looks.

r.     In the sentence, “…, she knew they would have loved anyone who gave them a biscuit” a prior action is implied, namely that the intruder kept the dogs at bay by giving them a biscuit, but at this point Gertrude does not know the intruder is in the house. As such, I would think it would be better to say, “…,she knew they would love anyone who gave them a biscuit.”

s.   She tasted a spoonful is confusing because it’s hard to understand a spoonful of chicken. Maybe it was really chicken soup? If she tasted a piece of chicken, I’d just say “it” instead of “a spoonful.” Or, you could say, “left over chicken soup simmering on the stove.”

t.     “She needed to get out of her clothes…” It’s unclear to me why she needed to get out of her clothes at this point. I realize it’s important to getting the action into the bedroom, so she can discover the intruder. However, rather than saying out of the blue that she needed to get out of her clothes, you might consider adding some action earlier that would actually give the reader a sense of why she needed to get out of her clothes.

u.   “Because that door opened on my first try as and others didn’t. I don’t like to damage property if I can help it.” “And” replaces “as.”

v.   “Trying to regain her equilibrium” is a form of telling, which is unclear to me. Perhaps you could show her disequilibrium, which I’m not sure is physical, mental or both. Did she start to fall down? Did she have to grab something to stay upright?

w. “You’re too old for what I need” is a statement belied by the intruder’s request that Gertie continue to undress. “Don’t you fear none, I ain’t gonna hurt you. You could, however, continue undressing,” Works better for me because Gertie doesn’t seem to be too old for what he needs.

x.   “She decided to start talking,” immediately precedes a statement by the intruder. It seems to me that you could rearrange this section so that Gertrude does the talking after that line.

y.   That Gertrude bought the religious icons in Russia suggests a financial status higher than I expected based on everything up to that point. That she could afford a trip to Russia tells me she is middle class or higher. I’m surprised.

z.   “You must have at least one, not that you’re the type men hunger for.” One what?

aa.                “…on The Young and Restless” takes me out of the story because I didn’t know what it was and had to Google it. Why not just say,”…on T.V.,” or “…in the movies?”

bb.                “not one damn little bit” is a little bit redundant. How about, “not one damn bit” if you want her to swear or “not one bit” if you don’t want her to swear.

My only lingering question is what happens next? Gertrude obviously felt good about killing the intruder and stopped to savor the moment. However, did she then go on to call the police? Did she try to bury the intruder in the backyard? Did she have sex with the corpse? This is not a criticism because I liked the uncertainty at the ending as it left me free to create my own endings. Is that what you want, however?

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