The American tall tale, according to Constance Rourke, dates from about the third quarter of the eighteenth century and side-winds its way through Washington Irving and Mark Twain well into the twentieth century. A chief function of the tall tale is as free-flowing conduit of history, a catch-all vehicle that, by disregarding most probabilities and some possibilities, contains a lot of historical truth. Usually these flavor the adventure of an Odyssean hero, as in Vincent McHugh’s unjustly neglected Caleb Catlum’s America. Now Thomas Berger, the author of two novels about a G.I. in and after the Army, Crazy in Berlin and Reinhart in Love, has shifted from the present to write one of these calico chronicles of the past.
Little Big Man purports to be the reminiscences of Jack Crabb, a short, indestructible frontiersman, narrated by him into a tape-recorder in 1952 at the age of 111. His story runs from his birth to Custer’s Last Stand in 1876 (he was the sole white survivor), and recounts his capture by the Cheyenne as a child, his early youth with them, his return to the whites, and several subsequent criss-crossings of the then color line, including his participation in the Battle of the Washita in 1868 as both Indian and cavalryman. He has a white wife and child who are abducted by Indians and, in the course of a rescue attempt, he acquires an Indian wife and child. Frontier posts, cavalry life, mule-skinning, buffalohunting, all these and much more are the stuff of the tale.
This, possibly, makes the book sound as factitiously hearty as some previous reviews made it sound to me. I found it deft and enjoyable. Berger’s tall tale differs from the tradition in that, so far as I know, it does not distort facts; its license is in claiming that all this could have happened to one man. The book dramatizes a lot of interesting Indian lore and Western history, and there is vivid recreation of the frontiersman as a general type and as personified by such men as Wild Bill Hickok. The writing is always lively and sometimes better than that. The “editor’s” explanation of the mixed vernacular and formal English almost, though not quite, covers the inconsistencies. One reads the book convinced that this is how those people looked, sounded, and—notably—smelled.
The only considerable flaw is the prologue. Since the story itself occurs well within a normal life-span, there was no reason why whimsy about the centenarian had to precede it. It could have been a journal set down in, say, the 1890s and could have dispensed with the Bathless Groggins introduction that only stretches the tall tale into fantasy. Once past the laborious prologue, it is generally good fun and often illuminating.
From a tall imaginative tale to some short veristic ones. John O’Hara’s book this year is a collection of twenty-eight stories. In his Foreword he warns us that this may be his last book of stories for a while, assures us that he makes a nice income from stories, reminds us (reviewers particularly?) that he has the Award of Merit from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, avers that he will push on. “I have work to do, and I am not afraid to do it.”
The Foreword is, like most of O’Hara’s personal statements, insufferable. The stories are, like most of O’Hara’s stories, very easily read, even when they are vacuous. After I finished the present volume, I re-read a couple of stories from his 1945 collection, Pipe Night, and it was like watching an early James Stewart film on the Late Show. You realize that, essentially, nothing at all has changed. The years have done nothing but age him; what was good remains good, what was bad remains bad. There has not even been deterioration, let alone development.
O’Hara is the last of the prominent Hemingway offspring and certainly the most successful. He has carried a stenographic method to the degree where one can enjoy it as such, just as one can—for a time, at least—enjoy soundtapes of almost any party conversation simply because it is recorded and shares the peculiar mystique of any record, sound or photographic. But his arrogance about his naturalistic methods, his reluctance to use other techniques that could condense and heighten, sometimes leads him to exposition of facts in dialogue that betrays the very naturalism itself:
“…that’s as much as any other man in town gets, unless he graduated from P.C.P. But they start higher, the P.C.P. graduates.”
“But you have your license, Philadelphia College of Pharmacy or no Philadelphia College of Pharmacy.”
That unlikely mouthful of-reply, by a wife to a husband, would have been unnecessary if the author himself had been willing to tell us succinctly what P.C.P. means.
O’Hara’s stories are set principally in the three areas he has previously staked out: Gibbsville, Pa., New York, and Hollywood. There are character sketches, so cleverly done that their emptiness is doubly disappointing: for instance, “The Answer Depends.” Some stories are muted melodrama, like “The Madeline Wherry Case,” whose only real asset is its reticence. Some, like “In the Mist,” are views of a decadent world from within, or hint at a mystery that lacks content, like “The Gun.” Saul Bellow wrote of O’Hara: “Certain of his stories run like little trolleys, bright and glittering, but without a passenger.”
There are a few, however, with passengers. Two, in particular: “Can I Stay Here?” is a telling encounter between an aging actress and a former beau’s daughter. “School,” about a father visiting the prep-school son who has snitched to the mother about the father’s affair, builds a tension between well-realized characters that creates drama and a corner of society.
But in all the stories, even the best, there is a taint of one-upmanship, the strain to be an insider. This, too, is O’Hara’s inheritance from Hemingway. Where the latter titillated us stay-at-homes with travel-snobbism about France and Spain and Cuba, O’Hara is a class or genre snob. When he writes about rich New York society or Pennsylvania Dutch society or low Hollywood “high” society, his teeming minutiae, used with a kind of nervous relentless casualness, connote a sophomoric pride that he has been there and that his reader probably has not. It gives his work an air of a Leonard Lyons column. Even without the foreword, his book seems to combine the values of the social climber and the lodge member. This book and his whole body of work are proof that skills, sometimes dazzling skills, are not enough.
Those who (like me) were impressed by Joyce Carol Oates’s first book, a collection of stories called By the North Gate, may (like me) be especially disappointed in her first novel, With Shuddering Fall. She tells here the story of a country girl who follows a rough racing driver, a man who has assaulted her father. The girl has an affair with the driver and becomes pregnant; after a separation, rejoins him, quarrels, has a miscarriage; after he is killed in a racing crash, she is temporarily unbalanced, then returns to her family. This is intended as a work of symbolic realism, intended to intensify the crudities and violence into allegorical poetic drama, with the flames of emotional truth burning away the grime of barrooms and cheap rooming houses. There are even characters who speak like choruses and counsellors.
The book does not succeed because we are always conscious of its intent. It is not a re-creation of life, it is literature born of literature. We are assumed to be interested in these commonplace characters by reason of the portentous manner in which they are treated. The violent plot—diluted Faulkner—is assumed to be tragic simply by being posed in tragic attitudes, thus elevating this B-movie auto-race story to the epic. But nothing like this happens; it is all effort, no effect.
The effort produces quite incredible dialogue. (“And there I had Judd’s old dirty book, numbers and signs to lull the mind away from itself, like a fog.”) Prolixity is mistaken for beauty of style. “The room looked as if a ferocious wind has tunneled through it briefly and disappeared.” Doesn’t “briefly” imply that it had disappeared? “He looked with dislike on his clothes: they were not clean, they were soiled…” Doesn’t the former imply the latter? These small superfluities, fairly constant for 316 pages, result in a considerably inflated rhetoric.
To certify, I went back to Miss Oates’s first book and re-read her story “Pastoral Blood,” which is almost a small paradigm for this novel. It, too, deals with the cyclical motion of a girl into an atmosphere of wild sexuality and violence, back to her haven. Not a word is wasted, not a spurious author-centered note is sounded. Nothing exists in that story but the girl, her experiences, her feelings. Possibly Miss Oates’s natural medium is the story, not the novel; perhaps, like Chekov, she thinks the novel is a beefed-up story. Whether this is so or not, those who admired her and whose expectation is only partially dinted can hope that she will consider the fate that overtakes many American women writers. After initial strength, impulse, genuine lyricism, they become precious, fussy prose-preeners. When the careers of American men writers falter, it is often because of a failure in material, a disconnection from a bloodstream (sometimes caused by success). With American women writers, it is usually a choking of the garden with too many pretty little flowers.
The author of “Pastoral Blood” and four or five other stories in that first book put her talents solely at the disposal of her subjects. In her novel, the false dialogue, the motivations patently maneuvered to create certain groupings and scenes, the predictable death, the overgrown prose, all these are signs of self-consciousness signs that certain gestures of authorship have become more important to her than immediacy, emotion, truth. Happily, she is still young enough to re-discover the differences between art and arty egotism.
December 17, 1964