Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Deal Me In, Week 27: "The Boy on the Train" by Arthur Robinson

I'm about a month behind on my Deal Me In reading and reviewing. Summer vacation happened to me (I'm not complaining though). Now it's time to catch up, which I plan to do over the next few days.


This story, originally published in the New Yorker, was chosen by the 6 of hearts -- which led me to The Best American Short Stories 1989. This is fast becoming my favorite of the four BASS volumes this year, probably because Margaret Atwood chose the stories.

At first glance, I thought this was going to be another "significant childhood event" story, and I was a little put off by that since I have had a rash of these kinds of stories lately. It did start out that way, but it quickly blossomed into something much more.

The story opens with little Lewis Fletcher, age 5, traveling by himself on the train all the way from Jacksonville, Florida to Camden, New York. The first his family hears of this, however, is 50 years later, when this factoid is printed as part of a "50 years ago today" feature in the local newspaper. This ignorance on the part of his family turns out to be not such a surprise, however, because we soon learn that Lewis is a no-nonsense, nose-to-the-grindstone kind of person who doesn't know how to relate to his wife and children very well, although the reader gradually realizes that he wants to relate, and he certainly does try.

Perhaps the most telling picture of Lewis as an adult and father comes as his three children -- Howard, Edward, and Sarah -- are discussing this pivotal event in their father's life:

In the evening, when their parents had gone to bed and the children stayed up talking, Sarah might say in a reverential tone, "Can you imagine him traveling alone from Jacksonville to Camden when he was five?" The two others -- Howard, the oldest, and Edward -- would say they could imagine it, that it was the easiest thing in the world to imagine. The picture they'd then conjure up was of a five-year-old old man with white hair, steel-rimmed bifocals, and a hearing aid that he kept turned off to save the flat, half-pint-shaped battery. (Edward and Howard had never thought of him as anything but an old man, even when they were small and he was in his thirties.) He would have dickered, they'd say, with the railroad until it agreed to give him a ticket in exchange for some worn-out toys, and he would have worked a deal in the dining car for his food, perhaps agreeing to polish silver. He would have brought along candy, fruit, and tattered copies of old newspapers to sell on the train. When he wasn't busy selling, or polishing silver, he'd be doing his bookkeeping. At every stop, he'd buy more stuff to sell, and at Jersey City he'd trade some of his inventory for the ferry ride to Manhattan. He'd be too busy to see the Hudson River or the Mohawk Valley, and when there was nothing else to do he'd make notes for the lectures he'd someday give his sons on How to Get Ahead and Be Somebody.

Of course, Howard and Edward's main goal in life is to make their father as miserable as possible, which they do with a series of shenanigans that make the story quite humorous. But later in the story, grown-up and with families of their own, they begin to appreciate the challenges that their father must have encountered with trying to raise them. It's not maudlin at all, but a rather bittersweet conclusion to a very satisfying story.

The Deal Me In short story challenge is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Deal Me In, Week 26: "A Long Day's Dying" by William Eastlake

Have I ever mentioned that I love the synchronicity that occurs now and then with reading plans like Deal Me In? Yes? Well, this week reinforced that idea with a tale that takes place on the summer solstice, which occurred around the beginning of this week. The card this week was the 10 of spades, which took me to The Best American Short Stories 1964.


The summer solstice is the longest day of the year, and on this day a young man named Little Sant (his father is known as Big Sant) is out on his horse in a lonely New Mexico canyon. He tries to cross a low spot in the canyon but his horse refuses to cross. Little Sant gets off his horse and tries to coax his horse, and soon finds out why the horse refused: he's in a patch of quicksand and is trapped. The horse breaks free and makes his way to higher ground while Little Sant starts sinking, thus beginning his long day of dying. He's there for hours, in the hot New Mexico summer sun, and he thinks a million thoughts. He also begins to hallucinate, of course, and Eastlake does a fantastic job of using language and imagery to depict his hallucinations, which begin gradually -- so gradually that the reader is not quite sure where Little Sant crosses over from rational to irrational thought.


Meanwhile, Big Sant and an Indian named Rabbit Stockings (one of Little Sant's friends) have begun looking for Little Sant. Big Sant is convinced that his son traveled up into the mountains to gather up horses, but Rabbit Stockings is equally convinced that Little Sant went down into the canyon, and is drowning. Big Sant ridicules Rabbit Stockings's intuition, and in general the exchange between these two is actually a humorous part of what could otherwise be a depressing story:

But what happened to the boy? What happened to Little Sant? Probably his horse went lame. Don't ask Rabbit Stockings; Indians are alarmists. "You are, you know, Rabbit Stockings."

"What's that?"

"You want to make a big thing out of nothing. Does the peace pipe go from right to left or from left to right?"

"What's a peace pipe?"

"You see, you have gotten over many of your superstitions. Why don't you get over the rest?"

"If an Indian believes something it's called superstition; when a white man believes something it's called progress."

In the course of their conversation it comes out that Rabbit Stockings's guardian spirit is a snake, and not long after, up on the mountain they encounter a rattlesnake which spooks their horses. After this, Big Sant decides maybe they should check the canyon after all. When they get there, Little Sant is alive and out of the quicksand, due to a chance encounter with another snake which makes the reader go "Hmmmmmm...." -- not out of some unrealistic plot twist, but because of how the author skillfully ties the threads of the story together in the ending.

This was a highly entertaining and engrossing story, and I enjoyed it immensely.

The Deal Me In short story challenge is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Deal Me In, Week 25: "Customs of the Country" by Madison Smartt Bell

This week, the four of hearts took me to an excellent story by Madison Smartt Bell, from The Best American Stories 1989.


The unnamed narrator of "Customs of the Country" is a young woman trying to get her life back on track. She does not succeed in the way that she hopes, but she does succeed. She's trying to regain custody of her young son, Davey, after losing him due to her drug addiction. She has cleaned up, and it's been two years, and she's ready to get him back. So to prove that she's ready, she gets a waitressing job at a truckstop, and rents a small apartment in a not-very-prosperous part of town. She does her best to make the apartment clean and homey, despite the nightly spouse abuse that goes on next door (always ending with a body hitting the wall hard enough to knock her pots and pans off the kitchen wall).

As she makes preparations to get Davey back from his foster family, we learn her backstory: about her husband, Patrick, who started stealing drugs from the hospital where he worked as an orderly and selling them on the street; her addiction to these drugs, and her withdrawal from them when Patrick gets arrested; and the inevitable crash when, sick from her withdrawal, she slings Davey across the room just a little too hard and breaks his leg.

The reader really begins to root for this young woman, because she's trying so hard. In her words, "Sometimes you don't get but one mistake, if the one you pick is bad enough." And she knows she has to work as hard as she can to recover from her mistake. But it's not enough. The judge decides to keep Davey with his foster family, with the understanding that they will eventually adopt him. It's a tragic blow to the young woman. But she recovers in a way that is both surprising, shocking, and redemptive.

I can't say enough about this great story. It's one of those that sucks you in from the beginning and carries you along effortlessly until the climax, and it was very satisfying to read.

The Deal Me In short story challenge is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Deal Me In, Week 24: "The Convict" by James Lee Burke

The card: King of clubs


The anthology: The Best American Short Stories 1986


The story: "The Convict" by James Lee Burke


(This story is not in any way humorous, as implied by that photo of Buster Keaton in one of his roles, but I liked it.)

I don't know what it is, but the short story gods have been conspiring lately to line up a bunch of "childhood traumatic realization" stories for me to read lately. This one is certainly one of the better ones I have read lately.

This story takes place in and around the town of New Iberia in south Louisiana, in the early days of integration. It's told from the point of view of young Avery Broussard, whose father Will is a highly respected citizen of the town, even though he frequently holds unpopular viewpoints, such as integration might be OK, and an escaped black convict might possibly have a soul and a good reason for wanting to run away from prison.

On the way back home from town one Friday evening, Avery and his parents are stopped at a roadblock, where a state policeman warns the family that there's a couple of convicts who have escaped from the infamous Angola prison (the Louisiana State Penitentiary) and are on the loose. Of course one of the convicts ends up hiding out in the Broussards' shed, and Will's attempts to treat the man with common decency strains his relationship with his wife. Avery observes all this and tries to make sense of it. He admires his dad immensely, but he also knows that Will is doing something that could get him into lots of trouble, and he doesn't know what to make of any of it.

Will ends up helping the convict move on, but he ends up back at the Broussards' farm after being trapped by further roadblocks. Will has no choice but to turn the man in at this point, and how that happens (and the mental gymnastics the Sheriff has to go through to keep from letting any blame fall on Will for harboring the fugitive) makes for an interesting climax and denouement to the story.

I was unfamiliar with James Lee Burke's writing before reading this story, but Wikipedia informs me that he is a prolific writer, probably best known for his series of mysteries involving the character Dave Robicheaux. Since he hails from my general region, I think I will have to explore more of his writing.

The Deal Me In short story challenge is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Deal Me In, Week 23: "The Mail Lady" by David Gates

I love mail. I love sending it, receiving it, blogging about it -- you name it. So when I was composing my Deal Me In roster of stories for this year, I couldn't resist adding this one to the list just solely because of the title. The Queen of Diamonds picked it out for me from The Best American Short Stories 1994.


(The beautiful Queen of Diamonds card was designed by Romanian artist Roxana Ganescu.)

The story is told from the point of view of the main character, Lewis Coley, who has been partially incapacitated by a stroke. He has trouble walking and speaking, but is otherwise intelligent and alert, so he makes for a most interesting main character. All of his frustrations with daily life, his family, and his surroundings come out in the narrative, but he of course can't do much about any of them any more.

Lewis is not the most likeable character, however. He has found religion late in his life, before the stroke, and his religion is clearly important to him -- he treats his life post-stroke as a kind of cross he must bear, although he doesn't understand it. But in spite of his religious conversion, he manages to be a pompous, irritable, self-righteous know-it-all who is more or less alienated from his daughter Wiley, and his wife Alice. He's also embarrassed and over-sensitive about his illness, wondering how Alice can possibly still put up with him. Although he doesn't sound very nice, the reader does learn to sympathize with Lewis and what he is going through, because his interior monologue and memories constitute the entire story.


So how does the mail lady from the title figure into all this? Well, I don't want to give away too much of the story, because I definitely think it's worth your time to find and read. But in short, the mail lady is a Mrs. Laffond, who dresses in mannish clothes (in Lewis' opinion) and drives a big pickup truck that often comes to the rescue of townspeople whose cars are stuck in ditches. Such is Lewis' small and bigoted mind that he suspects Mrs. Laffond of being a lesbian even though she has been married with children and he has no other evidence to go on than what she drives and how she dresses. However, the point of the story seems to be that Lewis is supposed to be paying a penance through his illness that is teaching him humility and his reliance on others -- so you just know Mrs. Laffond is going to come to his rescue at some point in the story. And she does.

I enjoyed this story a lot. It was a long story, but Lewis' interior monologue was so engrossing that it was a relatively quick read.

The Deal Me In short story challenge is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Deal Me In, Week 22: "Black Snowflakes" by Paul Horgan

This week the Queen of Spades led me to an affecting story about death and a child's sudden realization of mortality. I think it's quite interesting that this card was unwittingly linked to this story in my Deal Me In roster for this year. The Queen of Spades is a card that often has a dark, negative connection. According to Wikipedia, it's an unlucky, undesirable card in the game of Hearts, and it's also used as the Old Maid when one uses a regular deck of cards for that game. It also figures in the famous story by Pushkin. So this was just another example of Deal Me In synchronicity, which is one of the things that makes this reading challenge so interesting.

  

"Black Snowflakes" begins this way:

"Richard, Richard," they said to me often in my childhood, "when will you begin to see things as they are?"

But I always learned from one thing what another was, and it was that way when we all went from Dorchester to New York to see my grandfather off for Europe, that year before the First World War broke out.

The story is told from the point of view of Richard as a child, and it's a mesmerizing world of high society, comfort, and shelter. Richard's grandfather was originally from Germany, and he made a trip back to his homeland every year or two as a matter of habit. But this year's trip is different, and the entire family is traveling to see "Grosspa" (as they call him) set off on the ocean liner. Richard feels that something is wrong -- everyone is acting differently, there are sudden bouts of crying by some of the family members -- but he really can't put his finger on what it is. Besides, there's so many special delights and treats on this trip. The family stays in the Waldorf-Astoria the night before the ocean voyage, Richard gets his first glass of champagne (highly watered-down, of course, but still exciting for him), and he has the promise of shopping in New York and buying gifts for his friends, which includes the neighborhood ice delivery man and his horse.


It soon becomes clear that Grosspa is dying, however, and that he is going home to Germany to die. Richard understands this but also doesn't understand it -- that is, it doesn't sink in. After the family leaves the boat, with Grosspa on it, "like some wounded old lion crawling home to die," in the words of Richard's father, Richard sees snowflakes falling from the sky. These snowflakes appear black to him against the sunlight, and he tells his parents to look at the black snowflakes. His parents see this as another example of Richard's not being able to see things as they really are. However, eventually Richard experiences another death that brings all of this home to him and finally lets him see what death means and what it is like.

This was a captivating story. The language, the imagery, and the plot all worked perfectly together to evoke a mood for this reader that lasted long after the story was over. I highly recommend it!

The Deal Me In short story challenge is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Deal Me In, Week 21: "Disneyland" by Barbara Gowdy

This week the five of hearts led me to an extremely captivating story from The Best American Short Stories 1989. I chose this story solely because of the title. Who doesn't want to read a story involving Disneyland? But you have probably already guessed that this story has almost nothing to do with Disneyland, hence its intriguing nature.


As the story opens, it's Christmas 1960, and three young sisters -- Linda, Louise, and Sandy -- are getting a summertime trip to Disneyland from their parents. Their dad is taking two weeks off from work, and they're planning to have a great time.

Then paranoia and fear set in about nuclear bombs being dropped on the US, and Dad becomes obsessed with building a fallout shelter in the backyard (which he does), and leading the family through countless drills to see how quickly they can all get to the shelter in case of an attack.


Summertime comes, and Dad announces that the family is going to spend two weeks down in the fallout shelter, simulating what life would be like after a real attack. It becomes quickly and painfully obvious that THIS is the two weeks the family was to have spent at Disneyland, and they are about to experience a Disneyland of a different sort -- a not-very-nice one. The family barely gets settled into the shelter when Louise has her first period. Of course they have no supplies for such a thing, so they have to improvise with rags and such. The family is forced by Dad to follow a strict daily schedule, which includes periods of darkness throughout the day to conserve candles and fuel. This would not be so bad, except that every time the lights go out, Sandy, the youngest daughter, smells an odor that she is convinced is the smell of their dead dog, Checkers, who was buried somewhere in the backyard, and -- who knows? -- maybe the shelter was built near his grave.

Although this sounds like a somewhat horrifying story (because it kind of is one), it was still fascinating to me as a psychological study of the characters. I like stories where you put characters into some weird or difficult situation like this one, and then see what they do.

The Deal Me In short story challenge is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.