I have a really rather silly desire to see this story included in an introduction to literature anthology, one of those doorstop books of stories, poems, and plays designed for use in low-level college courses. The desire comes not from my admiration for the story -- though I do admire it -- but from wanting to see what sorts of questions the editors would come up with. I like stories that would be difficult to write such questions for, and this is one. I can imagine what the questions might look like:
1. What does the title "Child Assassin" refer to?
2. Why is it significant that the protagonist does not have a name?
3. How are the other things -- "cars, books, toys, grandmothers, yachts, dogs, an eighteenth-century Persian writing desk, parakeets, anacondas, Winchester rifles, stuffed polar bears, ice-cream trucks, oboes, a ten-acre field of marijuana, and so on" -- are "babies" that the protagonist also kills.
4. Discuss the final paragraph. Is it a metaphor?
5. Explain how these questions reveal nothing about the experience of reading this story.
Again and again we hear that the best fiction, the best poetry, the best music, the best this-that-or-another-thing is best because it cannot be summed up or reduced to anything other than what it is. "If I could have said it differently, I would have," the creator claims. Maybe I'm cynical (maybe?!), but often I wonder if this is really the case, or if the truth isn't something closer to: "Look, I've only got certain talents. If I could dance, I would have put these impulses into a dance. But I can't dance. I'm a carpenter, so I built a house instead of dancing."
But with a story like "Child Assassin", I cannot come up with any way to describe it that encompasses all the story is. I don't know how to reduce it to something other than its own particular expression. And many of its particular expressions are quite wonderful, for instance: "The tremors of their voices were on the furthest edge of comprehension, resembling the speech of minor earthquakes or lichen cellular growth." I love that sentence. The first part is familiar from many other stories and books, but the second part goes off in a direction few other writers would even notice, never mind head toward.
The structure of the story is interesting, too. It begins by offering a character -- a guy who kills babies -- and details the ins and outs of his job and life. Then it offers a complication -- a long-lost daughter of his own. The complication develops complications. This is where many writers might end, creating a trick ending, a reversal, a peripeteia. But no. The complication doesn't lead to just desserts or the return of order to the universe, nor purgation of any sort. No, it leads to a weirder ending, a world of junk and refuse and trash. The logic is the logic of dreams and nightmares, the logic of vision and hallucination. It opens the story out to be something more than what it seemed to be, though what that something is each reader must decide on their own. It also sends us back to think about the things the first parts of the story echo -- the old noir movies, the spy stories, the tales of clever criminals, lost children, tricks and traps. We are brought into a story that is strange, yes, but that seems to have the contours of something familar: we have been brought up to admire the professionalism of assassins, been trained to see them as something other than murderers and reprobates, psychopaths. We know they might not do the most savory things, but what they do they do with style and elan, with special knowledge and cool codes. Even if they kill babies of all sorts. Even if...
Which is just a roundabout and not very precise way of saying the last pages are up to a lot, and the last paragraph, which states so little and implies so much, comes awfully close to perfection.