At the Crossroads
The Fencing Master
Yes From No Man’s Land
These three books are written in puzzled indignation at the prospect of the ominous, unchartable wilderness of life in our times. If they don’t come to any terms with it, they do at any rate break into occasional fits of a tonic gallows humor. There are no rewards of plot, few of character; instead the reader is chiefly confronted with the personality of the writer and its response to the incomprehensible: Connell’s tentative cruelty, Rogin’s luscious self-pity, Kops’s artless anger.
The most cerebral of the three writers is Evan Connell. A polished, practiced, and precise stylist, he has turned out two novels (one, Mrs. Bridge, a pleasing, plotless best seller), other short story collections, and a stultifying book-length poem. At the Cross-roads is a fresh collection of short stories. Three of them work through, in close detail, by means of interior monologue, certain episodes in the life of Muhlbach, a fortyish widower; three others, again written with an almost maniacal sense of detail, are nonevents in the lives of two feckless young men, Leon and Bébert; the remainder is a miscellany of brief, arbitrary, and on the whole negligible stories, with tricky plots and nasty subjects.
Muhlbach, with his drugged grief for a recently deceased wife, his urgent sexual desires, his somewhat sarcastic tenderness toward his children, his dutiful but numbed attempts to pursue conventional relations with neighbors and acquaintances, and his controlled distaste for the world he lives in, suggests a manly figure big enough to hold together something more ambitious than these calligraphic exercises. So long as he must withhold himself from a life to which, admittedly, no sane man could commit himself wholeheartedly, there seems little more to say about him than Connell does in these three episodes. Others could be accumulated in number; the result could be called a novel (as Mrs. Bridge was) but it would add up to nothing more than a wry question: So that’s a man’s life; is that all there is, then?
For example, Muhlbach goes to a party on Christmas night. The host and hostess are observed with fastidious revulsion: he is always wondering how and why such people have roles in his life. But he remains discreet and correct: on the outside he is a conventional person; only within an appalled judge keeps account. The children of his hosts, he notes, are “growing toward cruelty with the approval of their father” (catching seagulls on baited fishing lines). He makes conversation with a snotty young beauty, a deplorable spinster who hopes he will marry her, an exasperated, foulmouthed old novelist, a lustful diplomat. He communicates with no one. He is alone with his appraising thoughts:
What have I done? he asks himself. What forces have met to build such a nation as this? Is it my fault that the pleasure of the trip has been destroyed? Of what am I guilty? He stares at his hands, mildly folded in his lap, regarding himself as …