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 of revenge for his father, for the joke played upon him, began to tear violently. Tears spilled out over his face, onto his own threshing hands.
Starting with the hackneyed metaphor “tears burned in his eyes,” proceeding through the flat and improbable outcry of the character, to the erroneous homonym “borne” and the awkward half-pun implicit in the two meanings of “tear,” this is a poorly rendered scene all the way. On the credit side of the volume, I found Bernard Malamud’s “The Jewbird” a wry and potent morality—a bit loaded with self-pity, but dry and economical in the writing.
Come Back, Dr. Caligari by Donald Barthelme is a hard wild controlled collection of poker-faced perversities, working a kind of drollery which automatically precludes the intimate effects but pinwheels and skyrockets spectacularly across its own landscape. Occasionally Mr. Barthelme falls into a mode which can best be described as that of a pop artist in prose; these stories are studded with solemn absurdities from ads, comic-books, mail-order catalogs, record-blurbs, and instruction-leaflets. I select more or less at random:
With this album Abbey Lincoln’s stature as one of the great jazz singers of our time is confirmed, Laura La Plante said. Widely used for motors, power tools, lighting, TV, etc. Generator output: 3500 watts, 115/230 volt, 60 cy., AC, continuous duty…. More than six hundred different kinds of forceps have been invented. Let’s not talk about the lion, she said. Wilson looked over at her without smiling and now she smiled at him. This process uses a Lincoln submerged are welding head to run both inside and outside beads automatically.
“The Joker’s Last Triumph” is a perfectly dandy story about a non-triumphant advent of Batman, whose friends and relatives by supreme efforts barely keep him out of the clutches of the grinning clown of crime himself! In some of these “pop” stories the dead voice of the found prose threatens to choke out the voice of the narration altogether; even when things aren’t so extreme, Mr. Barthelme’s dialogues often resound against a curious blank wall of dead nothing. The characters rise like automata to their formal speeches and jerky actions, then subside; it makes not only for the cruel funny, but, oddly, for a desolate landscape littered with pathetic fragments of useless speech-patterns. It is a book written as if with verbal components from a used-car graveyard; its most striking effects come from disparity, inconsequence, and incongruity. But though very different from anyone else’s short stories, these efforts are not so very different from one another: Can Donald Barthelme Achieve Variety As Well As Originality? Tune in next volume and find out.
Given a good idea, like publishing in one book three short novels (or long stories or novellas or whatever) by beginning authors, Random House should have gone all the way and provided for the volume a title more inspired than Three: 1964. Three what? a querulous buyer-in-potentia might well ask; and the answer will have to be, two traditional sketches and a story. Mr. Robert Robinson, in “Going the Other Way,” describes a sixteen-year-old Floridian with obvious antecedents in Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield. He’s a mischievous little rascal, which is pretty endearing, but his innocence is too synthetic for comfort, and the total stance is not far from kittenish. Eleanor Widmer works the other wing of the American Arcadia; her nymphs and shepherds inhabit Division Street on the Lower East Side, and the sketch is of a psychotic male parent. “Mister Jack” was originally a sociological report, and it hasn’t yet moved far enough from that format to undertake a vigorous narrative line or a distinct literary pattern of its own. Finally, Egon Porohyles, in “The Coming of Monsieur Alazay,” offers an authentic story, one dealing with religious mania and its corrosive effect on a retired civil servant. The level of its satire is unclear on occasion (if M. A’azay’s devotees are intended to be dupes, they respond on occasion to remarkably good evidence), but the story has a greater reach and a more controlled shape than its two companions.
Donald Windham’s slight, careful sketches of an Atlanta boyhood have been appearing in The New Yorker for some time; they are now collected in a volume called Emblems of Conduct, which turns out to be a slight, careful book. In addition to avoiding most of the clichés of the Southern scene, it manages to dodge most of the clichés of the sensitive young artist amid the alien corn. These are no small achievements, but they are essentially negative; and the book, though profiting from its avoidances, does not achieve a very robust existence of its own. Mr. Windham’s art lies in slow, detailed description of particulars; when he generalizes, or offers “insight” into his own behavior, the notions emerge with an innocence which is often engaging, but which also gives the ideas themselves an air of makeshift. More satisfying is the unhurried evocation of an atmosphere, the narration of a childhood defiance and reconciliation, or the portrait of a passing stranger. Put together in a more or less consecutive volume, these charming little sketches add up to more than they would individually—but not much more.
And now at last Behold Goliath, a volume of stories by Alfred Chester; the jubilant title of which, by a happy happenstance, heralds the appearance not only of a writer but of a storyteller. His stories, that is, are imaginative constructs, of a certain size and intensity, within which something occurs. They deal, in a style of great inwardness, with consistently deranged sensibilities; characteristically, it is by following out a thin but always visible thread of logic that these agents reach their ultimate perversities. They are not verbal tricks, cutouts, or wistful after-dinner companions; instead, they strike directly at the roots of their cluttered and hopeless, yet still imaginative, existence. Dolores, the semi-literate narrator of “Cradle Song,” does what she can to make herself a virgin again for Larry, who does not want an impure woman for his wife even if it was himself who violated her. David, the precocious child of “As I Was Going Up the Stair,” whose final discovery is that he is not David, is led down this chilling path by a series of logical deductions based on careful observation of the unpeople who surround and direct his existence. And Goliath himself, foredoomed by his name to ignominious defeat, wanders through complex corridors of nightmare in pursuit of his identity, an identity, any identify. The crisis of mere existence is caught beautifully, because authentically in these stories; without self-indulgence, without theatrical self-flattery, Mr. Chester presents a group of individuals trapped, in effect, in Sartre’s cafeteria-type help.
These are strong, inventive stories, and exhilarating as all writing must be which exhibits a free, unstudied craftmanship; but one of its conventions raises a question which, if only because it nags, might as well be faced. Why is it that in much modern fiction a homosexual prowling the streets for a pickup is engaged in a poignant human search for love—while characters who seek love in ways and places where perhaps it is a little more likely to be found are represented as mere clods? I’m not asking about life, just about the literary convention.
April 30, 1964