Prize Stories 1964: The O. Henry Awards
Come Back, Dr. Caligari
Of all the ridiculous critical categories—“short story”—as if there were something in a mere word-count which entitled one to bundle together parables and sketches, fantasies and fables, romances, burlesques, narrations, satires, character-studies, moralities, enigmas (not to mention all the subject-categories—mystery-stories, love-stories, adventure-stories, ghost-stories, ad infinitum) indiscriminately. Yet, if only as a nondescript, catch-all phrase, the term “short story” is probably inevitable; and along with it comes the loose and casual critical standard to which individual specimens are inevitably held. They need only be memorable. It is a standard of great simplicity, very hard to meet; but for the omnibus reviewer—whose five dozen stories are a mere tokens of as many thousands which confront the omnibus reader—it is, perforce, primary.
John Cheever’s first-prize story in the O. Henry collection obviously does not meet it. “The Embarkment for Cythera” is a slightly “off” title; off the theme of the story, off Watteau’s picture and Baudelaire’s poem—true only to a certain softness in the story proper, which is one of those effortless narratives about hopeless suburban adultery which used to be called “bitter-sweet.” The bored and aging wife…the grocery clerk, naif, vital and a little grasping…the clandestine meetings, revulsion, disillusion…. It is all very familiar material, and so effortlessly told that twenty-four hours later, you will hardly know whether you have read it or not. Perry Como has something of the same knack for singing a nothing song—this is not vintage Cheever, by any means. As for the other stories in the collection, J. C. Oates has a second-prize account of a family whose patriarch, after some years in a hospital, has developed the stigmata. The satiric targets are broad, but the prose is very flat indeed, and on occasion downright inept. Here, for instance, is Walt, reacting at the climax of the story:
Walt looked around again at the bed. Tears burned in his eyes. “Punishment that you deserve! Goddam selfish old bastard, now you’re getting it! God’s on the right track! Got your number—never loved us, did you? Took all our love from us and—“ They had pushed him out the door but he continued, laughing, seeing the faces of his brothers rush toward him—“Took it and kept taking it, a goddam sewer! a drain! down a toilet, anything we gave you! Now you’re getting it good!—He is, he’s getting it good,” Walt was crying at his brothers. “He’s laying in there and told me how he changed his mind and doesn’t want the miracle any more, he told me it with his eyes. He says he hates God, hates Christ, says Christ had it easier than he does, if there ever was a real Christ—which he doubts! Told me it with his eyes!” He felt a sharp pain through his sleeve—a needle? He spun around and grabbed something—the doctor’s jacket—and with rage borne out …
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Love in the Western World May 28, 1964