“The Third Thing that Killed My Father Off” is told in the first person point of view in thirteen sections. Although the title uses the phrase “killed off,” the first line of the story sets up the tale as what “did in” the narrator’s father (198). The expectation that the narrator sets up is that this is a story about his father, but to my way of reading, it is a story about Dummy. More than the meaning of the story, though, I’m interested in looking at the construction of it. Carver writes in what I’ve heard called The New Yorker style. This isn’t so much about the language or plot or characters as it is about structure. The story is broken into sections, which show shifts in time and/or understanding of information.
The first section sets up the entire story. If Carver were sitting next to me, I might be satisfied with hearing the first section on its own as a whole story. Sure, there would be questions raised, but the narrative arc is all there. There are no surprises for the reader. We know Dummy will die. We know the things that “did in” the narrator’s father. We know there are problems with Dummy’s wife, with his fish, and we know that the father takes the blame about the fish, at least.Curious as I am, though, I want details. The story in section one doesn’t quite satisfy because the information raises too many questions. How does he die? What’s the deal with the wife? The fish? Why does this do in the father?
Despite the straightforward language and linear structure, I find this a difficult story to navigate. I’m left with a lot of questions, which I don’t mind at all, but I do wonder if these questions are the mystery of the story. What, exactly, was it about Dummy’s death that did in the father? I can make guesses, but ultimately I think that the answer, for us as well as the narrator, is unknowable.