Monday, July 17, 2017

Dorothy Parker Made Me Do It

            In her 1927 New Yorker review of Ernest Hemingway’s Men Without Women, Dorothy Parker gave the highest praise to one of the included short stories, ”The Killers,” saying it was one of the four great American short stories, and adding that the others were Wilbur Daniel Steele’s “Blue Murder,” Sherwood Anderson’s “I’m a Fool,” and Ring Lardner’s “Some Like Them Cold.” When I read the Parker review in a collection of her Constant Reader pieces, I felt I had to see how these stories held up.
The Hemingway entry was the only one I had read before this project. Generations of anthologists have seconded Parker’s opinion by including “The Killers” in their collections, but I tried reading it again with a fresh eye. Hemingway’s story was published in Scribner’s Magazine in 1927 and collected in Men Without Women that same year.
            The two scenes of “The Killers” are constructed to show not only the situation of two hired killers who’ve come to a small town outside Chicago to kill an ex-prizefighter, but also a contrast in the way the characters react to it: the cook who wants nothing to do with it and Nick Adams who wants to alert the intended victim, notify the police, do something. Hemingway makes his killers comic, a pair dressed up alike in overcoats that are too tight, “like a vaudeville team.” But their intentions are not comic, and, although they fail, everyone in the story knows they will eventually succeed. This inevitability and the fatalism that meets it—except for Nick Adams—is the main impact of the story.
            Sherwood Anderson’s “I’m a Fool” was published in The Dial in 1922 and collected the next year in Horses and Men. With irony that recalls Henry James, but very much in the American vernacular, Anderson lets his nineteen-year-old narrator make a fool of himself indeed, not for the reasons he states, but for much deeper reasons of self-loathing. The boy, who doesn’t know how to do anything but groom horses because of the choices he’s made, says it’s an honest and worthwhile endeavor, but his actions show how much he would rather be among the college kids and the horse-owners he affects to despise. William Faulkner confirms Parker’s judgment about this one: “next to Heart of Darkness…the best short story I ever read.”
Wilbur Daniel Steele’s “Blue Murder” was published in Harper’s in 1925 and collected in The Man Who Saw Through Heaven in 1927. “Blue Murder” is a mystery story; Tony Hillerman and Otto Penzler included it in The Best American Mystery Stories of the Century in 2000. Blue Murder is the name of a horse who is the only sympathetic character in the story aside from the man who brings him home, who is also the first victim. Three brothers named Bluedge—the blood and bludgeon suggestion is apt if obvious—a simple farmer, an avaricious merchant, and a vindictive, jealous simpleton, are the main characters, along with a nymphette named Blossom who had been courted by all three brothers and married the wrong one for the wrong reason.
Ring Lardner’s “Some Like Them Cold” was published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1921 and collected in How to Write Short Stories in 1924. Lardner’s story is the only one of the four that doesn’t stand up very well to the passage of almost a century since it was written. Charlie Lewis, Lardner’s swaggering Chicagoan, convinced he’ll conquer New York, already spending the twenty-five grand he’s convinced he’ll be paid for his first song, ends up settling for a $60 piano-playing gig and the girl even her brother describes as cold. Lewis is corresponding with a girl he met as he left Chicago—Mabelle Lewis, the frugal, pie-making, ingenuous and natural girl he left behind. Lardner could create characters out of the vernacular, but here those characters amount to no more than the clichés they use.
            So what do these choices say about Parker herself and her critical chops? Except for the Lardner, these stories are still delighting readers and reappearing in anthologies. Something about the Mabelle character in the Lardner may have appealed to her, and in fact Mabelle has a little in common with Parker’s “Big Blonde.” The other three stories constitute a clinic in the use of language to construct character, and in Hemingway’s case the restraint of language to the point of a minimalist limit. Each of these stories moves with an inevitability: in Hemingway’s story it comes from the threat of the mob that has been enabled by Prohibition America, which then seems powerless to undo its enabling. In the other stories the inevitability comes from character. The appeal for Parker, I’m guessing, is this darkness, with only the slight glimmers of Mabelle’s decency, the fact that Sherwood Anderson’s character can make choices, and Nick Adams’s naïve resistance.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

An Evening with Vincent Price

            When I was a freshman at the University of Arizona, I persuaded my roommate Pat Kent to hitchhike with me to San Diego to see my sister, who was a Navy wife. “We can stay with her a couple of days and then hitchhike back,” I said. Pat was always game for an adventure. It’s about a six-hour drive from Tucson to San Diego, but it took us all day. We kept getting left at crossroads, progressing in 50-mile jumps. At one crossroads there was rain. Finally, though, as the sun was going down, we made it into downtown San Diego. I had my sister’s number, so I found a pay phone and dialed it. The first hint that something might be wrong came when the operator said “Deposit $1.25 in change, please.” Between us we scrounged the five quarters and I put them in, the phone at the other end rang, and a voice unmistakably my sister’s answered. “Hi, Judy,” I said. “I hitchhiked here to San Diego with a friend. We’re going to freeload on you for a day or two. Where do you live?”
            There was a pause of perhaps three beats before Judy answered.
“I live in San Francisco,” she said in an even voice.
“What!” I said. “You’ve lived in San Diego for years.”
“Yes, Marty,” she said. “But Dennis’s ship has been in San Francisco for the last year.”
            This conversation went on for several more minutes, but I was too stunned to listen to much of it. We were in San Diego with no place to stay and not enough money for a hotel room. We were too tired to just start hitch-hiking back—not a good prospect at night, anyway.
Our immediate solution was an all-night movie. Maybe not the best choice for some shuteye; it was Vincent Price in The Fall of the House of Usher. Every time I managed to doze off came one of those screams usually described as “blood-curdling.” For me, “sleep-shattering” would have been more accurate.
            In the morning Pat remembered he had a second cousin who lived in Chula Vista, a suburb of San Diego. He managed to find the cousin’s number and called. “Oh, sure,” said the cousin. “Come on over. There’s an empty guest house you can stay in just outside the walls of the asylum.”
The asylum?
Pat’s cousin, it turned out, ran a private asylum. But he gave us a meal, and I was looking forward to a good night’s sleep in the guest house, which was very comfortable.
But then in the wee hours, lights glared through the ample windows of my bedroom, and there came the sound of people shouting at each other. I looked out to see several blue-bathrobed inmates clumsily trying to climb the wall toward us, while white-clad attendants urged them to “come back down now, be calm, everything will be all right.”
            Pat’s cousin kindly bought us bus tickets back to Tucson. I was never so glad to see my dorm room bunk.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

April in Paris, with Dwarves

In April of 1964 I witnessed a fistfight between two men, both dwarves, outside a bar on the Boulevard de la Motte-Picquet in Paris. It had never occurred to me until today that dwarf-tossing might have been involved.
            I spent the whole month of April, including my twenty-first birthday late in the month, in Paris that year. Everything about that time was memorable and extraordinary, but nothing more strange than the dwarves’ fistfight. My friend Pat and I were usually out in the evenings, bar-hopping, finding a good cheap restaurant in the student quarter, or just enjoying the passing scene. That night we were walking past a bar near where he lived in the 7th arrondissement, when two dwarves tumbled out of the door, got up, and proceeded to slug each other. After the surprise, my reaction—and I think it was shared by a number of those around me—was what do we do? I wouldn’t have felt any hesitation stepping, with some help, into a fight between ordinary-sized people if I thought it needed stopping. Fights that are unequal or in places where others might get hurt often have people separating the combatants. But we were all strangely frozen as spectators. Would these two appreciate such a gesture from big people? A delicate question was how it struck me. Of course some were enjoying it. After a short, fierce engagement, the two stopped fighting; one went back in the bar and the other down the boulevard.
            I’d almost forgotten this incident until today. Listening to an economist talking about strange economic arrangements that some people want to ban even though they might benefit the participants, I heard him mention in passing, dwarf-tossing as an amusement in bars. Of course I had to look that one up. Apparently one of the places dwarf-tossing used to be popular was Paris. (It was banned in Florida in 1989 and in New York a year later, but Paris was the place I was interested in.) Though a community in the suburbs banned dwarf-tossing, and had its ban upheld by an appeals court in 2002, dwarf-tossing is probably still legal in metropolitan Paris.
            Did the fisticuffs on la Motte-Picquet have something to do with dwarf-tossing? One of the additional strange things about the fighting dwarves is that they were dressed up—they were wearing suits and ties. The bar from which they had emerged did not look at all an up-tone place (how I wish now I had gone in to look around), and it occurs to me they might have been dressed for an act, or, perhaps, dressed to go out somewhere after taking off other costumes; dwarf-tossing sometimes involves padded costumes or, more bizarrely, Velcro-costume clad dwarves who are thrown at Velcro-covered walls. And since I’m so wildly speculating, were they fighting about the act? Turf, technique, or the esthetics of the thing? I’ll never be able to find out what was behind that little people’s mêlée in that memorable Paris spring.