From All Saints
“Writing is the way I pray,” K.D. Miller told fellow CanLit author Lori McNulty in the National Post. “I frequently have doubts about my relationship with my religion and my church. But writing? Never.” Miller’s substitution of an artistic impulse for the act of religious devotion is appropriate for an age in which believers and non-believers seem increasingly polarized. Mainstream or moderate adherents to any organized religion are often treated with suspicion from both sides – atheists on the one hand and fanatics on the other. Religious leaders are frequently exposed as hypocrites and charlatans, and science has provided convincing solutions for many of the existential mysteries that humans once turned to the church to explain. Doubt in sacred matters seems practically inevitable, as does the desire to find something capable of filling the spiritual void left by institutional religion’s demotion in our postmodern world.
Literature, of course, has always maintained a relationship to the divine: from the Medieval mystery plays and Dante to Bunyon and Blake, Flannery O’Connor and William Peter Blatty. The Western canon is replete with writers honouring and grappling with notions of salvation, sin, and institutionalized faith. In All Saints, her collection of linked stories circling around the titular Anglican church, Miller simultaneously extends this tradition and subverts it, writing not out of a position of blind adherence to a set of dogmatic beliefs, but from a deeply humanist perspective that attempts to examine and comprehend human nature’s essential conflicts and drives.
There are two women at the centre of “Magnificat” – one old, one younger – each of whom is grasping for something ineffable in her life. Julia is an aging spinster who has reached the twilight of her years with only the church as a steady companion. Cathy has had no shortage of male suitors, though many of them resemble Owen, the gormless poet who lives in her apartment building and whom she expends an inordinate amount of time and energy trying to avoid. At the outset, these two women appear separately, in alternating sections, but their paths intersect as the story progresses, leading to a climactic scene in a park that lays bare the malaise at the core of each character.
Thematically, Miller’s story addresses the nexus of the sacred and the profane. Julia is a devout believer, who attends All Saints regularly – as a balm, we come to understand, for the lack of companionship and emptiness she suffers in the rest of her life. She is afflicted by “an old melancholy” born of a realization that youth and experience have passed her by. “I did not take unto me a husband” is the motto she adopts for herself: “She liked to think the phrase take unto me gave her an ironic edge, and did not made her solitary state look like a choice.”
There are strong indications that Julia has remained a virgin; she is certainly censorious when it comes to matters of the flesh, and has been “disturbed by mention of sex and the Internet creeping into church services.” She is a staunch traditionalist, who prefers the evensong service “largely because modern liturgists have yet to tamper with it.” For Julia, religion should be “distant and monumental,” so as not to risk sullying itself in carnality and thereby reminding her of all that she has missed out on in her life. The church is a means of dealing with her loneliness, but only so long as it remains above and beyond the messy physical realm of human congress.
Of course, this is precisely the realm Julia is forced to confront by the end of the story. The instrument of this confrontation is Cathy, who is every bit as devoted to matters of the flesh as Julia is to matters of faith. Cathy is embroiled in an unhealthy relationship with Gabe, a drifter who fills her need for a dominant sexual partner while neglecting her in every other aspect of their relationship.
Cathy, we learn, is a masochist who first noticed her proclivities as a schoolgirl, when she experienced a sexual response to being administered the strap as punishment for a transgression. In Gabe she discovers someone who will fulfill her need for abjection without hesitation or pity; his pick-up line on first encountering her – “Time you got what’s coming to you” – provokes a reaction by its resemblance to that long-ago school punishment.
Gabe is aware of Cathy’s sexual kink because she has confessed it – along with its origins – to him. Gabe “knows everything” about Cathy, while she remains ignorant about the details of his life and history. As a “professional house-sitter,” he has no fixed address; she doesn’t even know where to locate him on a consistent basis. This unequal power dynamic puts Gabe entirely in control, while Cathy worries constantly that he won’t call, or that he will:
He never says hello when she snatches up the phone, or even It’s Gabe – just dictates his latest address and hangs up. And that makes her afraid all over again – that she’ll find out the address doesn’t exist. Or that it does, but Gabe isn’t there. Or that he is there, but won’t fuck her, even when she begs. Or that he’ll have another woman with him. Or another man. Or that he’ll want to do more and more things that hurt. And that she’ll let him. Because it’s time she got what was coming to her.
Cathy’s neediness is a carnal mirror of Julia’s loneliness; the older woman follows the couple into a local park without being able to explain her motivation, finally stumbling upon them having sex in the dirt.
Here the symbolism in the story is actualized: Cathy’s earthiness is given a literal manifestation as the grass chafes at her knees and her “fingers dig into the dirt.” Julia, who is pictured crouching and (not incidentally) “clutching at herself,” appears to Cathy “in a blue robe and a kind of white headdress, like a nun’s.” The association here is with the Virgin Mary, a figure Julia has been explicitly linked with in the previous scene.
This association is extended by the Magnificat hymn that Julia sings to herself having witnessed the act of copulation. The hymn is one of humility before God, taken from a passage in Luke’s Gospel following the angel’s revelation to Mary that she is to carry the Christ child in her womb. She visits her cousin Elizabeth, who is also pregnant (with a child who will grow into John the Baptist), where she declaims the words of the hymn. Here, Miller combines imagery of motherhood and devotion, while also engaging in comic debasement by having Julia appear barefoot, with her shoes over her hands.
Julia has removed her shoes because of a blister that has broken on her foot; the wound is a physical representation of her inner pain, as Cathy’s abjection is actualized by her tearing at the ground, though the younger woman also pictures herself “surrounded by angels.” In this moment, the sacred and the profane – which otherwise remain poles apart in Miller’s story – are united, and there is at least an implied transference between the two women. Each possesses aspects of character coveted by the other; their encounter brings them together in a fleeting, if ultimately unacknowledged, reconciliation.
From The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard
Elmore Leonard, who died in 2013, is remembered best as the author of gritty crime thrillers like Glitz, Bandits, and Rum Punch. But the author got his start penning westerns for pulp magazines in the 1950s while working full-time as an ad copywriter. Leonard would write in the morning, between five and seven o’clock, and, as he explains to Greg Sutter in the interview that opens The Complete Western Stories, would surreptitiously write at the office, hiding his manuscript in a desk drawer that he would casually shut whenever someone came by.
Writing for the pulps in their 1950s heyday was relatively lucrative: the magazines paid two cents a word, which meant that a 5,000-word story could net its author $100 – a fairly sizable payday in 1953, and also half the amount Dan Evans, played by Van Heflin, is offered for the dangerous job of transporting outlaw Ben Wade to the train that will carry him to Yuma Territorial Prison in Delmore Dave’s 1957 film adaptation of “Three-Ten to Yuma.”
Leonard had a complicated relationship with Hollywood. He drafted numerous screenplays – including adaptations of his own novels Mr. Majestyk and 52 Pick-Up – but he viewed the film business cynically, and seemed to feel that it was peopled with figures not much less venal than the crooks and shysters he habitually wrote about. The 1990 novel Get Shorty is a Hollywood satire premised on the notion that a loan shark could move to Hollywood and seamlessly transition into producing motion pictures. When “Three-Ten to Yuma” was sold for adaptation, Leonard says he “saw how easily Hollywood could screw up a simple story.”
First published in the March 1953 issue of Dime Western Magazine, “Three-Ten to Yuma” is indeed simple: a deputy marshal named Paul Scallen arrives in the town of Contention with the outlaw Jim Kidd in tow. The two hole up in the local hotel where they wait for the 3:10 train that will transport Kidd to the prison at Yuma. Kidd is a bandit and murderer, and various posses loyal to him are roaming towns in the Apache territory waiting to spring him. Scallen knows this, and his knowledge is what infuses “Three-Ten to Yuma” with much of its tension.
The majority of Leonard’s brief story takes place in the hotel room, and features Scallen and Kidd engaged in a kind of psychological warfare to determine who will gain the upper hand. Neither character is provided anything in the way of back story or motivation, other than the obvious notion that the lawman is determined to ferry his charge to prison while the outlaw is equally determined to escape.
A simple two-hander on a single set would not sit well with Hollywood execs, whose first demand would be to “open” the story to include more exteriors and a larger cast of characters. Which is exactly what the filmmakers did in 1957, and again in 2007, when the film was remade with Russell Crowe and Christian Bale. In both films, the deputy marshal is turned into a rancher, and the relationship between captive and captor is complicated by having the bad guy – Crowe in the remake; Glenn Ford in the original – assist the good guy in the climactic stages, a move Leonard studiously avoids.
One thing the films don’t capture, of course, is Leonard’s laconic style, which he honed over the course of his career, but which was already present in the early westerns. As a university English major, Leonard tells Sutter, he taught himself how to write by reading. “I wasn’t reading for story, I was reading for style.”
The style in “Three-Ten to Yuma” is spare and replete with the kind of macho dialogue that could fairly easily be transposed onto the mean streets of Detroit:
“How much do you make, Marshal?” Kidd asked the question abruptly.
“I don’t think it’s any of your business.”
“What difference does it make?”
Scallen hesitated. “A hundred and fifty a month,” he said, finally, “some expenses, and a dollar bounty for every arrest against a Bisbee ordinance in the town limits.”
Kidd shook his head sympathetically. “And you got a wife and three kids.”
“Well, it’s more than a cowhand makes.”
“But you’re not a cowhand.”
“I’ve worked my share of beef.”
“Forty a month and keep, huh?” Kidd laughed.
“That’s right, forty a month,” Scallen said. He felt awkward. “How much do you make?”
Kidd grinned. When he smiled he looked very young, hardly out of his teens. “Name a month,” he said. “It varies.”
“But you’ve made a lot of money.”
“Enough. I can buy what I want.”
“What are you going to be wanting the next five years?”
“You’re pretty sure we’re going to Yuma.”
“And you’re pretty sure we’re not,” Scallen said. “Well, I’ve got two train passes and a shotgun that says we are. What’ve you got?”
Kidd smiled. “You’ll see.”
This kind of dialogue is ready-made for film, and indeed when screenwriters adapt Leonard, they have a habit of lifting whole chunks from the fiction and dumping them verbatim into their scripts. What they tend to get wrong – and what likely drove Leonard crazy – is that they miss how essential the spareness is, how everything in a Leonard story is stripped down to its barest essentials.
There is nothing extraneous in “Three-Ten to Yuma,” nor does the story deviate from standard genre tropes or situations. There is a good guy and a bad guy, and a shoot-out at the end. The movies – in particular James Mangold’s 2007 remake – attempt to add psychological depth and nuance, but what they gain in background they lose in immediacy and claustrophobic suspense. Leonard effectively builds an atmosphere of threat over the course of a very brief story – the whole thing runs fewer than fifteen pages, but is a masterpiece of efficiency.
When asked how he writes such riveting fiction, Leonard famously remarked that he leaves out the boring parts. His early westerns, now largely overshadowed by his crime fiction, provide glimpses of the style he would develop into. “Three-Ten to Yuma” is an example of his fascination with the interaction between officers of the law and criminals, and the often shifting ground between the two. His later novels would replace the good guy/bad guy dichotomy with bad guys and even badder guys, but his nascent concerns were nevertheless present in his pulp work. “Three-Ten to Yuma” is effective because of its spareness and style: it leaves out the boring parts. Hollywood take note.
From Everything That Rises Must Converge
On April 22 of this year, Stephen Colbert took to the stage of the Peter Jay Sharp Theater at New York City’s Symphony Space. The celebrated cable television satirist was not there in character as his bigoted, ignorant right-wing alter-ego; he was there as himself, and he was there to read a story. The event was part of the thirtieth anniversary season of Selected Shorts, a combination podcast and reading program that pairs short fiction with celebrity readers.
This was not the first time Colbert had participated in the literary programming at Symphony Space, but according to Hillel Italie of the Associated Press, Katherine Minton, who runs the program, thought he would be a natural fit with O’Connor. Like the writer, Colbert is a Catholic from the South, and the two share an affinity for irony and biting humour. Italie quotes Minton as saying, “I asked him and he said yes right away, and told me that he’d like to read ‘The Enduring Chill.'”
It is not difficult to understand what Colbert appreciates about O’Connor’s story. One of the author’s later works (the collection in which it appears was published posthumously, following O’Connor’s death from lupus), the piece contains the cascading ironies for which the writer is justly celebrated, but also evinces a control over its tone and its subject that is absent from her earlier works. Particularly significant, perhaps, the central theme of the story is one Colbert made much of in his career as a mock pundit: hypocrisy.
Asbury Porter Fox, a twenty-five-year-old native of a backwater Southern town with the delightful name Timberboro, has been away at university in New York. He returns home suffering from a fever and chills and convinced he is dying. This scenario – which, in O’Connor’s hands, turns out to be the set-up for an elaborate, religiously suffused shaggy dog story – provides an opportunity for the author to corrosively deconstruct the familial relationship between Asbury, his overbearing mother, and his schoolteacher sister, Mary George.
At first Asbury appears to belong to the class of O’Connor’s patented intellectuals – a group the author had little but disdain for. He attends university in the big city – a location that never bodes well in an O’Connor story – where he is a failed writer, having penned “two lifeless novels,” a “half-dozen stationary plays,” a group of “prosy poems” and “sketchy short stories.” The only writing of his he has not burned consists of a long letter to his mother – which takes up the entirety of two notebooks – meant to explain himself and his life. “It was such a letter as Kafka had addressed to his father,” we are told.
Here is O’Connor at her most blisteringly ironic. Asbury is not an intellectual; at best, he is a pseudo-intellectual, someone who strives for credibility but continually falls short. His university friend Goetz, upon learning of Asbury’s illness, counsels that the young man consider it an illusion, like all of life, but Asbury is unable to comprehend what this might mean. Goetz has been to Japan, where he became a Buddhist; he buys Asbury a ticket to a lecture on the Hindu philosophy Vedanta (Asbury is bored to tears by the talk), following which members of the audience retreat to Goetz’s apartment. Among them is a Jesuit priest with the outrageous name Ignatius Vogle, who speaks airily about the “real probability of the New Man.”
Asbury feels an affinity for Vogel’s affectations (perhaps unconsciously recognizing in the Jesuit a fellow poseur), which seem to stand in opposition to his mother, whom the young man considers little more than a rube incapable of comprehending his artistic aspirations. “I think it would be nice if you wrote a book about down here,” his mother says in an attempt to be encouraging. “We need another good book like Gone With the Wind.” She advises her son to include the Civil War in whatever he writes. “That always makes a long book.”
Asbury’s mother – for whom the epitome of literary achievement is Gone With the Wind – has nothing in the way of artistic or intellectual ability, but the story treats her more sympathetically than her son because she is genuine where Asbury is artificial. Like her creator, she has remained close to the small community in which she has always lived and looks with suspicion on the teeming masses in New York. She insists that Asbury consult the local physician – tellingly named Dr. Block – who, despite his back-country ways and colourful dialect, is the person who eventually diagnoses Asbury.
At the risk of ruining the joke, it turns out that the young man is not dying. In this, Mary George hits close to home: “Asbury can’t write so he gets sick,” she tells their mother. “He’s going to be an invalid instead of an artist.” This is fairly close to the truth as Asbury has determined it. In the absence of a clear diagnosis, he has convinced himself he is dying and that his death will substitute for the production of a great work of art as his life’s magnificent act. “He had failed his god, Art, but he had been a faithful servant and Art was sending him Death. He had seen this from the first with a kind of mystical clarity.”
Reading these sentences in an O’Connor story should set off instant alarm bells, and should clearly indicate that Asbury is ripe for comeuppance. (The relevant Bible text here is Matthew 6:24: “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one and love the other; or else he will hold to the one and despise the other.”) Nor should it be surprising that the instrument of this comeuppance is a priest – not a devotee of “the New Man,” like Ignatius Vogel, but a true fire-and-brimstone Jesuit who strips Asbury of the hypocritical mantle he has donned and leaves him naked before his God (in O’Connor, the deity always merits a capital letter).
There is irony here, too. Asbury initially asks his mother to summon Father Finn because he assumes the priest will resemble Ignatius Vogel. (His first question is about whether Father Finn has read Joyce; the other man doesn’t even know whom Asbury is referring to.) Instead of indulging Asbury’s inclinations toward intellectual pretension, Father Finn berates him for neglecting his eternal soul by not doing enough to serve God in this life.
Asbury saw he had made a mistake and that it was time to get rid of the old fool. “Listen,” he said, “I’m not a Roman.”
“A poor excuse for not saying your prayers!” the old man snorted.
Asbury slumped slightly in the bed. “I’m dying,” he shouted.
“But you’re not dead yet!”
Father Finn’s retort is brutal in its directness (it’s one of the only moments in the story in which the irony is dropped and O’Connor speaks directly) and its ability to cut to the heart of the real sickness afflicting Asbury.
Asbury’s solipsism and self-involvement have conspired to convince him that he is too grand for the town of Timberboro and even for his own family. But his carefully constructed persona is easily rent by someone who recognizes the insincerity and deceit underpinning it. Asbury likens the letter he writes for his mother to the work of Kafka, but misquotes Yeats and burns his own fiction, which he considers substandard and ineffective. His climactic confrontation with Father Finn represents the moment O’Connor insisted on in her work: the dramatic instant in which grace is offered. This is often, in O’Connor, a moment of violence; here the violence is rhetorical rather than physical, but no less scalding for all of that.
The story’s final image finds O’Connor in full symbolist mode: a water stain on Asbury’s bedroom wall, which appears as a bird with an icicle in its beak, is seen to be descending toward the young man. This water stain is likened to the Holy Ghost “emblazoned in ice instead of fire,” and making its “implacable” way toward the figure prone on the bed. In this final moment, the chill of Asbury’s illness, which has proved not to be so mortal as he imagined (“People just don’t die like they used to,” his mother tells him), is replaced by a different kind of enduring chill, this one more spiritually potent and transforming. The veil of hypocrisy has been torn away and the egotistical hypocrite has been forced to confront his essential self. No wonder Colbert likes the piece.
From Death in Midsummer and Other Stories
On February 26, 1936, a group of young radicals in the Japanese army attempted a coup that resulted in the murders of several senior political officers. According to G. Ralph Falconeri, writing in The Journal of Asian Studies, the purpose of the coup was to eliminate what the rebels saw as corruption at the top of the Japanese political structure and to “place reformist generals in power to solve the empire’s political, economic, and diplomatic dilemmas.” Though the plot was quickly put down, and the perpetrators executed, the incident had lasting effects on Japanese society, the most immediate of them being a push toward increased militarization and entry into the Second World War.
Yukio Mishima, once considered Japan’s premier modern writer and a candidate for the Nobel Prize, uses the February 26 Incident as the springboard for his story “Patriotism,” about Shinji Takeyama, a lieutenant in the Imperial army so “profoundly disturbed” by the actions of his military colleagues that he decides to make a public display of his dissociation with them by committing seppuku – ritual disembowelment that has its origins in the feudal society of the samurais. In a show of loyalty, the lieutenant’s wife, Reiko, agrees to act as his witness, following which she too will commit seppuku.
Mishima’s story is an exercise in artistic control. From the opening paragraph, readers know what is going to happen and why: the story is narrated retrospectively, opening with a factual description of the lieutenant’s feeling of betrayal by his fellow soldiers and his decision to commit suicide along with his wife. We are given the content of the lieutenant’s suicide note (which reads, in its entirety, “Long live the Imperial Forces”), and told that it has been fewer than six months since he married his wife.
The rest of the story flashes back, first, briefly, to the couple’s wedding, full of promise and purity, then to the final night of their lives, which is described in careful, studied detail. The dutiful wife runs a bath for her husband, warms some sake (he refuses dinner), following which the two make love for the last time.
Though the scene detailing the couple in bed together is in no way pornographic – indeed, Mishima makes a point of turning away at the crucial moment – it is nevertheless highly erotic, made all the more so by the knowledge, on the part of both characters and the reader, of the couple’s imminent deaths. The care they take in their interaction, the way they run their hands over each other’s bodies, as if trying to map every minute curve and crevice, is at once sensual and heartbreaking. There is a true sense of connection here – a connection that will soon be severed by a razor-sharp blade.
The seppuku, when it arrives, is every bit as graphic as the previous scene was restrained. Lasting approximately four pages, the lieutenant’s suicide is hideously violent and frankly difficult to read. It unfolds slowly – as the act of seppuku itself does. (One reason the method of suicide was considered honorable was the time it takes to commit; the difficulty in making the requisite cuts, and the extreme pain involved, was thought to highlight the practitioner’s loyalty and dignity.)
One paragraph will suffice to indicate Mishima’s approach here:
Was this seppuku? – he was thinking. It was a sensation of utter chaos, as if the sky had fallen on his head and the world was reeling drunkenly. His will power and courage, which had seemed so robust before he made the incision, had now dwindled to something like a single hairlike thread of steel, and he was assailed by the uneasy feeling that he must advance along this thread, clinging to it with desperation. His clenched fist had grown moist. Looking down, he saw that both his hand and the cloth about the blade were drenched in blood. His loincloth too was dyed a deep red. It struck him as incredible that, amidst this terrible agony, things which could be seen could still be seen, and existing things existed still.
The juxtaposition between this passage – replete with violence and gore – and the idyllic scene of the couple’s marriage day is startling and effective. It is also typical of an author who, as a post on The Asia Collection makes clear, was “a mass of contradictions: weak versus strong, masculine versus feminine, physical versus intellectual, eroticism versus estheticism, elegance versus brutality, beauty versus ugliness, purity versus pollution, East versus West, and finally, the notion of ‘brave hara-kiri’ versus ‘defeatist suicide.'”
Indeed, the notion of “brave hara-kiri” has strong resonance in the author’s own life, and provides a disturbing real-world connection to the events detailed in “Patriotism.” In 1970, the author himself led a ragtag militia in storming the headquarters of the Japanese military. After delivering a rambling speech to more than 1,000 massed troops, Mishima himself committed suicide by seppuku. An article in the Guardian on the thirtieth anniversary of the writer’s death indicates that although Mishima was dismissed as a “crackpot” at the time, his political ideas have gained traction with particular factions in Japan in the years since his death.
“Right-wing politicians distanced themselves from Mishima after his suicide by saying it was the act of a madman, but in certain nationalist circles he is held up as a god,” said Henry Scott-Stokes, the author of a biography of Mishima. “He showed sincerity in a way that cannot be denied. He stuck a knife into the heart of today’s Japan.”
The word “sincerity” is significant: it is the word that is inscribed on a scroll, created by an army lieutenant general, that hangs on the wall of the room in which the lieutenant and his wife take their lives: “Even if it were to become stained with splashes of blood,” Mishima writes, “they felt that the lieutenant general would understand.” Certainly, Mishima the author never questions the sincerity of his character, nor his nobility. “It would be difficult to imagine a more heroic sight than the lieutenant at this moment,” the author writes, having just described the horrific scene of the military man’s intestines spilling out into his lap.
Mishima’s own death was a terrible instance of life imitating art, and continues to provoke disturbing questions about the often subtle distinctions between patriotism, heroism, and madness.
From The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader
In 1926, Langston Hughes published an essay titled “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” in which he decried the impulse among black American artists to dilute the racial content of their writing to assuage dominant white sensibilities or, more worrisome, to actively court white approval or mine white culture for their subject matter (a pose he likened to bribery). Hughes, who Poets.org calls “the voice of black America in the 1920s,” is critical of a fellow poet who claimed that he wanted to be known as a great poet, not a great black poet. This statement, which Hughes says made him “ashamed,” has behind it a submerged embarrassment about the state, and therefore the value, of black life and culture in America. For Hughes, the assertion means “‘I want to write like a white poet’; meaning subconsciously, ‘I would like to be a white poet’; meaning behind that, ‘I would like to be white.’ And I was sorry the young man said that, for no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself.”
Hughes, whose own poetry (“The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” “Jazzonia,” “The Weary Blues,” etc.) unapologetically incorporates rhythms from and references to quintessential black musical forms such as jazz and blues, isolates one of the key stumbling blocks for black American artists, in the 1920s and afterward. To achieve success, they must gain acceptance among the dominant culture, which by default is white; this requires at best compromise, at worst subservience. To remain pure, the black American artist must ignore the dictates of the dominant culture, which of course risks the culture ignoring the black artist in return. For Hughes this was not a problem; for the black writer or musician or actor trying to raise money to buy food or provide shelter for a family, such strict adherence to a principle might be a bit more difficult to effect.
Outside the realm of art, the Horatio Alger myth continued to hold sway over the American psyche in the interwar period; if its lustre has diminished today as a result of decades of war and increased economic disparity between the rich and poor, it still remains a potent idea. The rags to riches notion – work hard, and anyone can strike it rich – was never true; it was always an aspirational lie based on a misreading of the essential ways in which capitalism operates.
The aspiration, however, is strongly embedded in American mythology; it informs the attitudes and ideals of Dorothy West’s protagonist in “The Typewriter.” The man at the story’s centre – “an abject little man of fifty-odd years” – is a migrant from the South now living in Boston, and hating every minute of it. He is one of the group of black Southerners who fled the plantations for the North, only to come up short against the depredations of the cold, bleak city. West’s character left the South for Boston as a teenager, hoping to find his fortune; he quickly realized that the lucrative office jobs he coveted were closed to him. Ever since, he has been reduced to taking a series of menial service jobs. His current employment is ironic: he works as a janitor in one of the downtown office buildings in which he originally imagined himself ensconced behind a mahogany desk and plate-glass windows.
At his wife’s urging, the man rents a typewriter for his daughter at the rate of three dollars a month – “Ain’t ’nother girl in school ain’t got one,” the wife says to him, “An’ mos’ of ’ems bought and paid for.” Here the man’s wife, Net (note the name: as in, something one gets caught in), appeals to the two aspects of his character she knows will yield results: his male pride, and his innate sense of competition in a capitalist society. “You’re a poor sort of a father if you can’t give that child jes’ three dollars a month to rent that typewriter.”
The office implement is another ironic reminder of the man’s failed aspirations: it is not accidental that the noise of its keys is called “murderous” and likened to “a vampire slowly drinking his blood.” But his attitude changes when his daughter, Millie, asks him to dictate letters to her so that she can practice her typing skills. She insists they be authentic business letters, and the man dictates what he assumes such important correspondence would entail: “Ah – Beaker Brothers, Park Square Building, Boston, Mass. Ah – Gentlemen: In reply to yours at the seventh instant I would state –”
In this, the man is able to imaginatively project himself behind the mahogany desk he has always coveted. He adopts the persona of a financial bigwig and even creates a name for himself – J. Lucius Jones. “All them real big doin’ men use their middle names,” he tells Millie. “Jus’ kinda looks big doin’, doncha think, hon? Looks like money, huh?” Of course, another abiding irony is that West’s character remains unnamed but for the aspirational pseudonym he adopts. His character in reality does not merit a name: only as J. Lucius is he significant enough to be individuated in this way.
But J. Lucius Jones is a fiction – a fiction that must, at the end of the story, die. The heart attack the character suffers is the final indignity: his death is rendered in terms of his businessman alter-ego. Even at the ultimate moment of his life, J. Lucius is more real and more significant than the “abject” transplanted Southerner who worked as a janitor cleaning the offices of white men.
It is interesting to consider how West’s story fits into Hughes’s conception of black American art. David Levering Lewis, editor of The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader, remarks that West was a prodigy, but was “conventional in her fiction.” Formally, “The Typewriter” is a more or less straightforward piece, though West employs local argot in her dialogue and mines contemporary black experience – as degraded and frustrating as that might be – for her subject. She does not seem to share the attitude of the poet Hughes disparages: in her story, she is writing as a black woman, about the black experience. The fact that the ironies in her story are so dispiriting and acerbic speaks to a culture that continues to disregard the potential for upward mobility among non-whites. The author remains true to this submerged culture simply by writing about it honestly.
From Young Skins
Many reviews of Young Skins, the debut collection from Irish writer Colin Barrett, quote the book’s opening line, from “The Clancy Kid.” And well they should, because it’s a great line. “My town is nowhere you have been, but you know its ilk.” The rhythm and cadences of the prose draw the reader in, as does the commingled sense of anonymity and familiarity. You’ve never been to this town, but you’ve visited thousands like it. It’s nothing special. Except when filtered through the prism of Barrett’s language.
“‘Voice’ writing is all there is, to my mind,” Barrett told The New Yorker. “Taking ‘standardized’ language and deforming it, beautifully. Certainly, with fiction, you have to be trying to do that at some level – your story or novel can be about anything, but one of its subjects has to be the operations and consequences of its own language, or it’s nothing.”
The lilt of Barrett’s particular voice can be found right from the opening words of “The Clancy Kid,” and pouring forth into the descriptions of “the manure-scented pastures of the satellite parishes” with their “Zen bovines” contemplating “the V8 howls of the boy racers tearing through the back lanes.” Another frequently quoted image describes “the gnarled jawbone of the coastline with its gull-infested promontories.”
This is high-wire writing, without a net. The slightest imbalance could send the entire thing crashing to the ground, but the author’s innate sense of musicality and his feel for dialect keep the prose from tumbling. As an introduction, the first paragraph of the first story in this debut collection is a hell of an opening salvo.
Published in Ireland in 2013, Young Skins had already won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, the Guardian First Book Award, and the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature by the time Black Cat brought out the North American edition earlier this year. The great Irish writer Kevin Barry was an early enthusiast of Barrett’s writing; other writers who have been effusive about the work include Anne Enright, Colm Tóibín, Joseph O’Connor, and Colum McCann. It’s not difficult to see what other writers admire in Barrett: his assured prose elevates his core subject – the struggles of young, working-class men in the fictional town of Glanbeigh – into something that feels fresh and new.
“The Clancy Kid” is a strong distillation of Barrett’s strengths as a writer. The story focuses on two friends, twenty-five-year-old Jimmy and Tug, one year his junior. Jimmy is a drinker who has had a long-term relationship with a woman in town named Marlene. “[I]f we’ve never quite been on we’ve never quite been off, either,” Jimmy says, “even after Mark Cuculann got her pregnant last year.”
For his part, Tug doesn’t drink, “which is a good thing,” according to Jimmy. Tug, you see, is a bit unhinged:
Tug is odd, for he was bred in a family warped by grief, and was himself a manner of ghosteen; Tug’s real name is Brendan, but he was the second Cuniffe boy named Brendan. The mother had a firstborn a couple of years before Tug, but that sliver of a child died at thirteen months old. And then came Tug. He was four when they first took him out to Glanbeigh cemetery, to lay flowers on a lonely blue slab with his own name etched upon it in fissured gilt.
It’s the last detail, dropped in almost as an afterthought, that sets a reader back on her heels. There is such pervading sadness in the image of a four-year-old boy laying flowers on a grave with his own name etched into it – sadness for the loss of a brother he never knew, and sadness for being forced into a confrontation with his own mortality far earlier than should have been necessary. It is little wonder that Tug grew up “odd” (the nickname people use for him behind his back is “Manchild”), or that as an adult, he takes pills “to keep himself on an even keel.”
Tug is obsessed with a local child who has gone missing – the Clancy kid of the story’s title. Tug has various wild and unsupported theories as to what befell the ten-year-old, but his fascination bespeaks a tenderness that is otherwise absent from his character. That the missing child echoes Tug’s dead brother is clear, as is what the Clancy kid represents: innocence, in particular, lost innocence.
This notion is also explicitly connected to Marlene, whom Jimmy conjures at the end of the story. Marlene is associated in Jimmy’s mind with a newspaper picture of the Clancy kid Tug has clipped and tacked to the wall of his room; if the Clancy kid represents for Tug a kind of prelapsarian state of existence, so Marlene does for Jimmy. Marlene betrays Jimmy by rejecting him and aligning herself with a man whose surname – Cuculann – chimes with that of the hero Cú Chulainn of Irish mythology; Jimmy reacts by goading Tug to vandalize Cuculann’s car, following which he scrawls the words “Marry Me” on the window in Marlene’s lipstick.
The conflict between innocence and a fallen or degraded world also manifests at the story’s end in an encounter between Jimmy, Tug, and a young boy who claims he is a king guarding a bridge across the town river (more mythological undertones). After the boy smites Tug with a makeshift spear, Tug pretends to be dead, which sets the boy to weeping. Tug “revives” himself and addresses the boy: “Don’t be teary now, wee man … I was dead but I’m raised again.”
On one level, this is literally true: Brendan Cuniffe has died and his younger brother has been forced to lay flowers at his grave. In a sense, Tug’s notion of having been raised from the dead is absolutely accurate. Barrett’s story, however, will not allow either Tug or Jimmy succor from reality for long. Marlene has discovered happiness with the mock-heroic father of her child, and the Clancy kid remains missing. That’s the way life goes in the town of Glanbeigh. It is no accident that when Jimmy looks back after crossing the bridge over the river, the boy with the spear has vanished.
From Law of Desire
The English title of Andrej Blatnik’s 2010 story collection is You Do Understand. This could reasonably serve as a motto (the question mark is implied) for much of the Slovenian author’s work. Blatnik writes about understanding or, more frequently, misunderstanding: the struggle of individuals to make themselves relatable to others and the difficulties inherent in communicating even basic needs. The law of desire, in Blatnik’s conception, is that it must remain unfulfilled: “A desire fulfilled seems not to be our desire anymore,” the author has said. “Isn’t that alone enough for doubt or pain?”
As its title suggests, “What We Talk About” riffs on Carver, focusing on the fraught nature of interaction between men and women in a post-postmodern world. The first-person narrator encounters a woman at a library where he is returning a book (the book is Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love). The man strikes up a conversation with the woman – both of whom are appropriately unnamed in the story – and they go for coffee. They go back to the woman’s apartment, where they engage in a telling dialogue:
“And what are we going to do now?” she said finally.
“Now we’re going to kiss,” I said.
“Oh no, we’re not,” she said.
“I didn’t think we would,” I said.
“Then why did you say it?”
“You thought you had to. But you didn’t.”
I made no comment on that. “What do you suggest?” I asked.
“We could talk.”
“About kissing, if you like.”
“It’s too innocent,” I said.
“Okay, then about something less innocent.”
“About what?” I pretended not to understand.
“About exactly that,” she said calmly, unruffled.
“You don’t talk about it, you do it,” I objected.
“You’re behind the times all right,” she said.
“So what’s in then?” I asked.
“Not to do it, but only to talk about it.”
Actually having sex, in this conception, would be passé; to talk about having sex, however, perfectly fulfills the post-postmodern impulse for absolute subjectivity. It is impossible to truly know another person, therefore any attempt at intimacy is doomed from the start.
Not to mention that sex is dangerous. The man tells the woman of a friend who is afraid that his girlfriend might catch AIDS by eating salad out of the same bowl as someone else. Then there is the violent confrontation that occurs on the street on a subsequent night. The woman is surrounded by a group of roughnecks who threaten her with physical (read: sexual) violence; the narrator steps in and gets beaten for his efforts, saved from a much worse fate only by a passing police car.
The physical confrontation here is of course another means of communication and, in the event, one that is more direct and clear than anything else in the story. There is a political aspect underlying this confrontation (the gang leader derisively curses the man by saying, “Fuck off, southerner”), but largely it is gendered: the men communicate through violence and, quite explicitly, through the kind of violence they have consumed in the media. “I was aware I had to do something,” the man thinks, “but I don’t have much experience with this type of situation. Well, I knew what they did in the movies, at least.”
Much of the man’s approach to human interaction is gleaned from the movies. He borrows a videocassette of the movie Short Cuts from his brother (more Carver); Altman’s film is probably not the best thing to watch if one wants to clarify how to negotiate smooth interpersonal relationships. But the man admits that his understanding of the world is mediated and second-hand: “Most of the people I come into contact with are like me. We go to the movies. We read books. We listen to music. No harm in that, but it’s not real either, so to speak.”
It may not be real, but it is one of the only ways by which the man knows how to interact with other people. When he and the woman end up in a bar, their conversation swirls around mundane external matters, resolutely refusing to become in any way personal or significant: “we thoroughly exchanged our views on the development or rather decline of motion pictures since Casablanca, touched upon the exorbitance of rents, lauded the new municipal decrees allowing much longer opening hours for bars than in our student years, and so on. Small talk.”
Yet small talk is ultimately better than no talk: it transpires that the man has a girlfriend, who has abandoned him for a trip to the mountains with a mutual male acquaintance. The two are probably having sex, but the man will never know for sure, because he and his girlfriend have a tacit understanding that they will not discuss it. Similarly, when the girlfriend comes home early and encounters the man and the woman at their apartment, she leaves them alone for the night and does not ask questions about what transpires (answer: nothing sexual).
The man spends much of his time in the story trying to convince the woman to divulge to him the nature of her business. He is initially convinced she operates a phone sex line; the truth is much less salacious, but more absurd and finally quite sad. The woman runs a service whereby people call her up and divulge their innermost secrets, thoughts, and desires, which she then strips of all emotion and writes down in an objective, third-person voice. This is the ultimate actualization of an inability to communicate or to acknowledge the importance of a feeling or desire; callers must shroud themselves in anonymity before they can talk to another person about their true emotions or intentions.
Needless to say, any kind of true communication is unavailable to the narrator of the story. “I couldn’t possibly do what I had been contemplating doing for the last couple of minutes,” he thinks. “I could not tell her my story. The one that weighed on my chest.” For the sparse and denuded universe of Blatnik’s story, this is the ultimate tragedy: in a world that has been reduced to media-saturated subjectivity, what we talk about is nothing.
From Stone Mattress: Nine Tales
The issue of the Toronto alt-weekly NOW Magazine that hit newsstands on April 2, 2015, featured a cover profile of Canadian writer Andrew Pyper, who had just published his seventh novel, The Damned. The profile began in an odd way. Susan G. Cole, NOW Magazine’s books and entertainment editor, led by essentially slamming Pyper for writing what amounts to a ghost story: “Andrew Pyper pisses me off. Really, I just want to shake him. He’s one of the best writers we have: vivid images, page-turning narratives, complex characters. He writes so exquisitely, you wish he’d just settle in and write a conventional novel. Do us a favour – get real and stop wasting your time on genre fiction.”
This distinction – between genre fiction and what Cole refers to as “conventional novel[s]” – continues to hang around, like a particularly nasty chest cold, though it is getting harder and harder to draw as more and more writers insist on eliding it. Colson Whitehead’s most recent book, Zone One, is a zombie novel, as is All-Day Breakfast, the latest from Canadian writer Adam Lewis Schroeder, who has to this point confined himself to the apparently more respectable genre of historical fiction. (Cole singles out Helen Humphreys for praise as the kind of writer she wishes Pyper would emulate, apparently unwilling to admit that historical fiction itself represents genre writing.)
Never mind that Pyper has forged a lucrative career over the better part of three decades by insisting on the artificiality of exactly these barriers. Suggesting that writers who practice their craft in the areas of genre fiction are “wasting [their] time” immediately discounts at least some of the output of such diverse figures as Henry James, Joyce Carol Oates, William Faulkner, Charles Dickens, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Angela Carter, Franz Kafka, George Orwell, John le Carré, Mary Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson, Elmore Leonard, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Ian McEwan.
Not to mention Margaret Atwood. Pyper actually does reference Atwood in response to Cole, a comment Cole calls “provocative.” But it isn’t provocation: it’s a simple fact. Atwood’s most famous novel, after all, is The Handmaid’s Tale, a feminist work of dystopian speculative fiction. Her recently completed MaddAddam trilogy of novels also constitutes spec-fic, this time with a healthy dose of environmentalism added to the mix. And the author’s upcoming novel, The Heart Goes Last, is also set in the near future.
In fact, the further on Atwood gets in her career, the less interested she appears to be in writing what Cole dismisses as “conventional” fiction. In his review of Atwood’s 2014 story collection, Stone Mattress, the critic Jeet Heer noticed this tendency, positing that before The Handmaid’s Tale Atwood “spent her main energies mastering and exhausting the possibilities of realism,” while thereafter “realism would become a minor chord” in the author’s work.
Atwood herself notes that the pieces in Stone Mattress are not stories at all but, as the subtitle attests, “tales.” This is not an arbitrary distinction. Atwood is deliberately staking out a position outside the confines of social realism, aligning herself instead with tellers of fabulous tales – Scheherazade and the Ancient Mariner, or Robertson Davies, whom Atwood quotes as saying, “Give me a copper coin and I will tell you a golden tale.”
None of the nine entries in Stone Mattress constitutes a work of realism; “Lusus Naturae,” commissioned for Michael Chabon’s anthology McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories, is an all-out allegorical fairy tale.
In terms of genre, the title story could reasonably be considered a work of noir fiction – it is a revenge tale, albeit told from a feminist perspective that is typical of its author. Its central figure, Verna, is a murderer. Or, to be more precise, she is what is colloquially known in crime novels as a “black widow”: a woman who marries men in a series and bumps them off one by one. Verna is careful to note that all of her victims die of natural causes, she merely helps them along, by leaving a double dose of medicine at bedtime, or offering “tacit permission to satisfy every forbidden desire,” such as unhealthy food or too much booze. She entices them into sexual congress, knowing full well that their hearts or their arteries won’t be able to take it. Viagra, Verna says, is “a revolutionary breakthrough but so troubling to the blood pressure.”
Also on display here is Atwood’s unique brand of acidic humour, something critics – most of them men – have castigated her for, but an aspect of her writing that devotees recognize and appreciate. It is a strain of humour that stretches back at least as far as the 1971 poetry collection Power Politics, which includes the brilliant four-liner “You Fit into Me”: “You fit into me / like a hook into an eye // a fish hook / an open eye.”
Sure, there is a strong element of nastiness in all this, but the viciousness is rarely misplaced in Atwood’s work. Consider what sets Verna off on her homicidal career: when she was a teenager, she was date raped, an experience that left her pregnant and a pariah. More than fifty years on, Verna encounters her rapist on an Arctic cruise; he doesn’t recognize her and tries to hit on her, she responds by forging a plan to kill him.
Verna’s plot to kill her assailant is also pure Atwood: the cruise ship is to make an unexpected stop at an area replete with stromatolites, “the very first preserved form of life on this planet.” A scientist explains to the vacationers: “The word comes from the Greek stroma, a mattress, coupled with the root word for stone. Stone mattress: a fossilized cushion, formed by layer upon layer of blue-green algae building up into a mound or dome.” One such fossilized cushion becomes the weapon with which Verna bludgeons her rapist to death, following which she carries the rock back on board the ship for the other passengers to admire and, not incidentally, get their DNA on. “She’d read a lot of crime novels,” we are told.
Atwood, too, has clearly read a lot of crime novels, to say nothing of novels in any number of other genres. Though some devout science fiction aficionados have charged Atwood with being an interloper – a literary writer merely pretending an affinity for so-called lower genres – Heer points out that “[t]his accusation is refuted not only by the sheer volume of Atwood’s genre output, but also by the way sensationalistic plots have manifestly invigorated her work.” Atwood’s affinity for genre writing is evident in the joy she seems to glean from it. And why shouldn’t this be the case? It’s all a form of storytelling, after all. How could anyone presume that this was somehow a waste of time?
From Blood Splatters Quickly: The Collected Stories of Edward D. Wood, Jr.
It is rare to encounter an authentic pulp sensibility. Raymond Chandler employed pulp tropes, but he was also a gifted stylist, as were Dashiell Hammett and Elmore Leonard. James Ellroy is a stylist who has also created a sex-and-violence-infused alternate history of America in the twentieth century. Jim Thompson possessed disturbingly acute insight into deviant psychology. But real pulp – quick and dirty, unrefined, salacious – was frequently confined to cheaply produced magazines of the 1930s and ’40s with titles like Spicy Detective, Dime Mystery Magazine, and Weird Tales. Beginning in the late 1960s, another place to locate this material was in the less reputable (though glossier) skin mags.
It was here that Edward D. Wood, Jr. found gainful employment with Bernie Bloom, publisher of Pendulum Publishing, whose titles included Flesh & Fantasy, Balling, and Young Beavers. Bloom apparently prized Wood for his productivity, at least until the writer’s problem drinking became too much of an issue and he was fired in 1974. (Wood died of an alcohol-related heart attack in 1978.)
If Wood is remembered today, it is likely not so much for his fiction (though he was undeniably prolific, producing both novels and stories), but for his work as a filmmaker. In the 1950s, Wood and a company of actors (including an aging Bela Lugosi and professional wrestler Tor Johnson) made a series of films that are cult classics, essentially for being among the worst movies in motion picture history. Most famous among these are the cross-dressing epic Glen or Glenda and the sci-fi disaster Plan 9 from Outer Space. (According to Bob Blackburn, who provides the introduction to Blood Splatters Quickly, the original title – Grave Robbers from Outer Space – was changed at the behest of the Beverley Hills Baptist Church, which was one of the financial backers on the movie.)
In 2014, OR Books brought out Blood Splatters Quickly, which collects thirty-three of the author’s short stories. What is most immediately surprising about these is their range: yes, there are stories about lesbian cowgirls, misogynistic cannibals, and cross-dressing porn stars, but there is also the Vietnam war story “No Atheists in the Grave,” the mock-elegiac “Epitaph for the Village Drunk,” and the naturalistic “Pray for Rain,” which, if you close one eye and squint, could be channelling Steinbeck.
“Scream Your Bloody Head Off” owes more to EC Comics than East of Eden. The opening story in the collection, it is representative of an author steeped in the tropes and traditions of genre horror and Grand Guignol. Writing on Flavorwire, Jonathon Sturgeon coins the term “horropornonoir” to describe Wood’s default mode; this word seems as good as any to characterize the particular approach the author employs here.
The basic story is straight out of James M. Cain: a woman comes at her cheating husband with a knife, the husband kills her, then has to decide how to dispose of the body. It is in its specifics that “Scream Your Bloody Head Off” deviates, quite substantially, from the work of the earlier author.
Stella, the dead wife, has discovered that her husband, Johnnie, has been having an affair with the couple’s neighbour, Barbara. What most infuriates Stella, however, is not the mere fact of her husband’s infidelity. Stella has also been sleeping with Barbara and can’t stomach the idea that her husband was having sex with the same woman. Her revenge fantasies involve (naturally) a butcher’s knife and emasculation: “She was going to cut him up but good and see that he went to the coffin without that thing between his legs. What he had used on earth so often he was not going to get a chance to use in hell.”
Wood injects a stream of jet-black humour into the post-mortem scenes in the story, as the hapless Johnnie searches for a way to dispose of his wife’s corpse. His initial idea – to dump the body in the lake – is not feasible because it is the dead of winter and the lake is frozen. Similarly, the ground would be too solid for a shovel to crack, so burying the body in the woods is out. The solution he comes up with – which is as implausible as it is outrageous – is to bleed the body dry in the bathtub, cut up the dessicated remains, and feed them into the kitchen garbage disposal.
Of course all of this is sick and perverse – that is the point, and the nature of the medium. And Wood displays absolutely no facility with psychic distance, switching indiscriminately from Johnnie’s perspective to Stella’s when necessary to convey essential background information to the reader.
But there is an undeniable energy to the story, and an evident glee at the prospect of seeing just how far the author can stretch his scenario. The offences perpetrated on a woman’s body are standard genre tropes that have fallen into disrepute in some corners of late – in many cases, for good reason – although the same kind of stuff can be seen pretty much any night of the week on reruns of CSI or Criminal Minds. As for Johnnie’s retribution at the story’s end, it comes in a form that is unexpected and mordantly funny (it involves a neglected piece of Stella’s bloody scalp and a flight of stairs).
“Degeneracy runs rampant!” Wood writes in “I, Warlock.” “Call down the degenerates!” This could be a rallying cry for the author’s entire oeuvre, and for “Scream Your Bloody Head Off” specifically. There is a kind of degeneracy to the story that is absent from the work of other, more respectable genre practitioners. It is true pulp fiction, not the ersatz, art-house stuff that too often gets filtered through a soft-focus lens to render it palatable to a mainstream audience.
From The Complete Short Stories of James Purdy
James Purdy is a writer who constantly found himself shut out of the front ranks of the American canon. This was not for want of admirers. Among the literati who sang the author’s praises, Purdy could number as fans Dorothy Parker, Tennessee Williams, Paul Bowles, and Gore Vidal. Reviewing the novel Cabot Wright Begins in 1964, Susan Sontag called Purdy “indisputably one of the half dozen or so living American writers worth taking seriously.” Contemporary fans include filmmaker John Waters (who supplies an introduction to the Liveright edition of the Complete Short Stories), Jonathan Franzen, and Tao Lin.
Not everyone is so effusive, however. Waters points out that the critic Edmund White “claim[s] to be ‘allergic’ to Purdy’s work,” while Dwight Garner, reviewing the Complete Short Stories in The New York Times, suggests that Purdy “remains one of those American originals who is mostly more interesting to read about than to actually read.”
No doubt Purdy is controversial, as even a casual acquaintance with the stories should indicate. He is frequently disdainful of women, if not outright misogynistic. The story “About Jessie Mae” features two nattering biddies who are a caricature of small-town gossips, and “Lily’s Party” is a pornographic horror show about a woman who is passed back and forth between two sexually ravenous men. In “Don’t Call Me by My Right Name,” a husband viciously beats his wife after she admits wanting to revert to her maiden name. (The husband’s name, which “irritated her,” is Klein, adding at least an incipient note of anti-Semitism to the mix.)
There is no doubt that Purdy, who died in 2009 at the not unenviable age of 94, was a provocateur of the first order, which goes some way to explaining his appeal to people like Waters and Lin. He could also be an irredeemably cruel writer, which helps explain Franzen’s affinity. And he was possessed of a streak of vicious humour that is pure Dorothy Parker. But in terms of his tone and approach – part satire, part fabulist – his closest literary relative is arguably Nathanael West, whose depictions of a specifically American kind of malice and anomie feel right at home alongside Purdy’s own writing.
The story “Goodnight, Sweetheart” begins with an eighth-grade schoolteacher named Pearl Miranda fleeing her schoolhouse and taking refuge in the home of a local man named Winston Cramer. When she arrives on his porch, Miss Miranda is completely naked; she claims that when she was alone in the classroom after school, a man with a gun burst in and stole her clothes as “a trick” to avenge his younger sister, whom Miss Miranda had had expelled. Winston suspects that Miss Miranda has been raped, and tries to convince her to visit a doctor in the morning.
It is tempting to read the story in a straightforward manner, but as always with Purdy, such temptation should be resisted. A brief sketch of the story’s plot belies the elliptical nature of Purdy’s treatment; “Goodnight, Sweetheart” is ostensibly a work of naturalism, but its plain dialogue hints at hidden meaning beneath the surface. Miss Miranda claims she has taken refuge with Winston because she was compelled to: “I had to come here tonight,” she tells him. “You know that.” This snippet, so easily passed over in a cursory reading, is strongly suggestive of something beyond what we know of these characters directly. As is Winston’s dismissal of his neighbour, Bertha Wilson, witnessing the naked schoolteacher enter his home: “‘Oh, it’s all right,’ Winston said. ‘Nobody will think anything about us.'”
The italicized final word draws attention to itself, prompting questions in the reader’s mind: what is it about Miss Miranda and Winston – apart or in tandem – that might exempt them from suspicion in the eyes of their fellow townspeople? At almost sixty years of age, Miss Miranda is a spinster, and Winston lives alone in the house he shared with his mother until the older woman’s death. He does his own cooking, a fact that prompts an odd reaction from Miss Miranda: “‘I bet you’re a good cook, Winston. You were always a capable boy.’ Her voice lowered as she said the second sentence.” To what, exactly, does the reference to Winston being “a capable boy” refer, and what would prompt Miss Miranda to lower her voice at this moment? (When Winston responds, Purdy underlines that it is in an artificially loud tone.)
There is another reference to lowered voices between the two, at the story’s end. They are in bed together, Winston having tucked the woman in after she succumbs to violent paroxysms of shivering. “He had thought to go upstairs and sleep in the bedroom that had been his mother’s” we are told, “but he didn’t know whether he had the strength to get up there, and in the end he had crawled back under the covers next to Miss Miranda.” He speaks to the old woman twice, telling her goodnight. The second time he does so by uttering the story’s title phrase: “‘Good night, sweetheart,’ he said again, in a much lower voice.”
The repetition of the hushed voice here is notable, as is the term of endearment, though there is nothing overtly sexual about this particular moment. On one level, it could be read simply as one person attempting to comfort another, though the context and the nature of the experience Miss Miranda has undergone renders this reading problematic at best. As the two lie together in bed, we are told, “both muttered to themselves in the darkness as if they were separated by different rooms from one another.” This, too, is an echo of an earlier moment in the story, when Winston absents himself to the kitchen and Miss Miranda overhears him mumbling to himself. “She supposed all lonely people muttered to themselves, and it was one of the regrettable habits she could never break in herself.” Are these, then, merely two lonely people, one of whom has suffered a traumatic experience, or is there much more going on?
The story is largely suggestive of the latter. During their interaction, Miss Miranda – to whom Winston always refers with the honorific – reverses roles with her supposed comforter, holding his head when he becomes sick from what he initially blames on a virus, then later attributes to appendicitis. “The doctor will come and fix us both up,” Winston tells Miss Miranda late in the story, an assertion the reader cannot help but question.
The unease in the story resides in what is deliberately withheld. The true nature of the relationship between Miss Miranda and Winston is never revealed, and at the story’s penultimate moment Miss Miranda catches a glimpse of Winston’s deceased mother in a picture hanging on the bedroom wall; she appears “pretty much as Miss Miranda remembered her.” This remark is never explained or clarified, nor is the exact nature of what happened to the teacher made explicit. “Goodnight, Sweetheart” provides a snapshot of small-town America in which the home appears to be a haven or a refuge from the evil of the world at large, but it remains unclear exactly what truths the home itself conceals within its walls.
In her assessment of Purdy’s output, Sontag identifies a number of distinct modes in which the author can be seen to work: “There is Purdy the satirist and fantasist; Purdy the gentle naturalist of American, particularly small-town American, life; and Purdy the writer of vignettes or sketches, which give us a horrifying snapshot image of helpless people destroying each other.” The author of “Goodnight, Sweetheart” appears to hover somewhere between the latter two states; in its glancing, abstruse presentation, the story leaves it to the reader to determine how to interpret the discomfiting particulars. Like many of Purdy’s stories, “Goodnight, Sweetheart” is constructed like a trap, with the careless reader its unsuspecting victim.