I love teaching “The Pig” because students, especially narrative nonfiction students, always freak out. “Wait, we can do this?” they want to know.
Yes, you can do this and I’d like to see you try. Nailing the reporting lets you open up on voice, and that’s what Ben Hecht had going for him here, with this 1921 piece from the Chicago Daily News, a piece so snappy and colorful it ought to come with carnival music. You can find it, and more like it, in “A Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago,” his collected columns, which any conscious narrative writer should go out and buy immediately.
Hecht went on to write gobs of novels, plays and screenplays, including the inspiration for “His Girl Friday” and “Underworld,” which won the first Oscar for original screenplay. His voice – very quick, very chatty – fit the needs of the movie business but also worked for narrative, which often calls for the touch of a stylist. Hecht developed this voice, as well as an ear for dialogue, in the “whorehouses, police stations, courtrooms, theater stages, jails, saloons, slums, madhouses, fires, murders, riots, banquet halls and bookshops” of Chicago, as he once put it. Spend enough time with humanity (actual time, not Facetime) and you absorb how real people treat each other and talk. Which lets you seed your stories with the language of their gestures and tics. Which is what Hecht did here, with this story about this pig.
What’s overtly happened is that a man named Anton hit his wife, Sofie, for what she did to his prize pig. What’s really happened, though, is some business about “evidence unheard,” which we’re led to believe involves childlessness. To get from the documented to the implied we experience a whole raucous 1,302-word sideshow of exclamatory accusations and defenses, and unattributed lines that might appear to be authorial conjecture. Hecht would never use an overblown term like “authorial conjecture,” so let’s strike that and say he went hard on voice and point of view, the latter always shifting, shifting.
That’s the craziest, most bewitching thing about the story. Someone’s always stepping into the spotlight for a split-second solo.
Well, what’s up?
Who’s talking here? The judge? The reader? Hecht? Only a couple of grafs in, it’s an unexpected pivot in perspective.
Why should the Popapovitches take up valuable time. Think of the taxpayers supporting this court and two Popapovitches marching up to have an argument on the taxpayers’ money. Well, that’s civilization.
That’s Hecht the columnist talking. But it’s also you and me talking. That’s civilization talking.
So, your honor, Anton puts (the pig) in the bathtub. And he starts down stairs with a basket and all night long he keeps bringing up basketfuls of dirt dug up from the alley.
Who’s this? Sofie? Her lawyer? Does it matter?
What!, he says. I leave this pig anywhere? Are you crazy? It’s my pig. I win him.
That’s Anton. Hello, Anton.
Hecht goes sans quotes throughout the story, and with minimal attribution, but gives us just the right number of signals and tags to keep us tethered. The writer is controlling both channel and volume via vernacular and tone:
All right, he’ll go to work. But first, understand, everybody, he don’t want this pig touched.
Not to spoil it, but Hecht shows himself to be a master storyteller by neither giving away too early what happens to the pig nor drum-beating us manipulatively toward that verdict. The confidence evident in his writing suggests he felt zero pressure to end with Resolution. In fact, he slips the presumed narrative climax, the poor pig’s fate, into the middle of a graf as if it were nothing:
That’s one day. And then there’s another day. And finally a third day. Will Anton let anybody kill his pig? Aha! He’ll break somebody’s neck if he does. But, your honor, Mrs. Popapovitch killed the pig. A terrible thing, isn’t it …
Spoiled it. Sorry.
Hecht moves on. Of course he does. The man was not a dweller. That much is obvious from his lifetime output of material. He wrote or worked on “Scarface,” “Some Like It Hot,” “Gone with the Wind,” “Notorious,” “A Farewell to Arms,” and some 70 or 80 other screenplays – six of which were nominated for Academy Awards, two of which won – not to mention plays and novels, with crime thrillers and comedies as his specialty. So of course there’ll be no dwelling on the pig. The whole point of the story, anyway, is the violent action that led Anton and Sofie to court in the first place, which ultimately delivers the “accusing eyes” and “hints of evidence unheard.”
In narrative terms we could say the pig win sets the story in motion; the pig murder is the catalytic complication; the court appearance is the climax; the accusing eyes are the resolution. The “evidence unheard” is the backstory; it’s the room wired to blow.
The other thing that puts “The Pig” in the canon of journalistic storytelling is the fact that it’s even a story at all. Another reporter might’ve taken one look at this docketed case and yawned it off as news of the weird, but Hecht recognized that beautiful thing called story arc, an arc laced with absurdity and sorrow and human folly and class, and he teased these out by letting everybody talk. As one of his editors later put it, Hecht’s work represented an evolving journalism with “the idea that just under the edge of the news as commonly understood, the news often flatly unimaginatively told, lay life; that in this urban life there dwelt the stuff of literature, not hidden in remote places, either, but walking the downtown streets, peering from the windows of skyscrapers, sunning itself in parks and boulevards. He was going to be its interpreter.”
Paige Williams (@williams_paige) is a National Magazine Award-winning journalist who writes for The New Yorker. She is an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and has taught narrative nonfiction at Harvard, MIT, NYU, the University of Pittsburgh and elsewhere. Her work has been anthologized in five Best American volumes, including twice in The Best American Magazine Writing. She was a ’97 Nieman Fellow at Harvard. Her narrative nonfiction book The Dinosaur Artist, based on a 2013 New Yorker piece, is forthcoming, from Hachette, in Fall 2016.
For more from the “Why’s this so good?” series, go here.