Short Story Edition
Deb Pfeiffer was a technical writer for almost 20 years, then, after several years as a stay-at-home mom, I had an unanticipated career move into the public schools where I currently work in a junior high school library. I'm not a writer and I don't have a blog, but I love to read and find lots of new (to me) books and authors by reading book-related blogs.
John P. Marquand and John O’Hara were the pre-eminent chroniclers of American life in the first half of the 20th century; and, in a way, their bodies of work describe the tension that existed between the privileged WASP class of Marquand’s world and the second-generation of (predominantly Catholic) Irish, Italian, German, and Polish immigrants who came of age before World War II and about whom O’Hara wrote so perceptively. O’Hara’s characters may not be able to get into the “right” schools or join the “right” clubs, but with their strength and drive they bring a vitality that two hundred years of entitlement has leeched out of Marquand’s characters. If you read O’Hara’s and Marquand’s work side-by-side, you’ll see much of the American assimilation saga played out there on the page.
Unfortunately, if John O’Hara is remembered today, it is as the writer of sexy 1950s blockbuster novels such as BUTTERFIELD 8 and RAGE TO LIVE (both of which were made into indifferent movies). But John O’Hara’s real métier was the short story. For over fifty years, starting in 1927 and ending just before his death in 1970, the prolific O’Hara published more than 200 stories in the New Yorker alone (not to mention many more stories that appeared in other publications); in fact, O’Hara was, in large part, responsible for shaping what we now consider to be the classic "New Yorker short story.”
The stories in this collection represent that half-century span, the first was originally published in 1927, the last in 1966. They range in length from a couple of pages to novellas. These are not stories with twists or surprise endings; they are character studies of people defined and limited both by their own choices and by social factors beyond their control. Outcomes proceed organically from the interactions of characters and the fundamental underpinnings of their personalities. Many of them are set in and around the fictional town of Gibbsville, Pennsylvania, and are narrated by Jim Malloy, the local doctor’s son, a fictional stand-in for O’Hara. A few others are set in New York or Los Angeles. One of the best of the L.A. stories is “Nautica Jackson,” about the devastating revenge committed by a woman who discovers her husband is having an affair with a movie starlet.
My favorite story in this collection is “Imagine Kissing Pete,” which explores thirty years in a mismatched marriage. Bobbie marries Pete on the rebound in 1929; friends assume the couple will soon divorce. But the Depression hits, there isn’t money to divorce, then the children come, and the couple remain married through ups and downs, separations, the Depression, downward mobility, hard times, the war, and eventual post-war prosperity. This is not a happy marriage—there’s heavy drinking (every O'Hara character seems to easily consume a fifth a day), casual (and not-so-casual) infidelity on both sides, anger, recriminations, and physical violence, but the marriage endures. The story ends with Bobbie and Pete attending the graduation of their youngest child from an Ivy League school in 1959.
The last story in the collection, “We’ll Have Fun,” is one that I wished would continue and have a happy ending for the main character, a hard-drinking Irish-American named Tony Costello. Costello loves and understands horses, picking up odd jobs from horse owners when he can and spending all of his money on alcohol But horses are on the way out; the rich owners who used to employ Tony are now buying automobiles; stables are being converted to garages; blacksmiths are closing their businesses. Then Tony helps a well-to-do woman who has inadvertently purchased a very sick horse. At the end of the story, Tony and the woman are planning a horse-buying trip together. Tony—despite his faults—is so committed to his love of horses that I was hoping he would be able to squeeze a happy ending out of his life. O’Hara promises no such thing, wisely ending the story before Tony’s drinking and haphazard lifestyle ruin another opportunity for him.
It’s unfortunate that O’Hara’s short stories are not more widely-read today. In their subtlety, range, social awareness, and precise dialog, they are a match for any of the more popular anthologized short stories of the last century. Anyone looking for reading material that is both entertaining and meaningful would not go wrong picking up a volume of O’Hara’s short stories.
Ed Gorman is the author of the recent Ticket To Ride and The End of It All and Other Stories. You can find him here.
Forgotten Books: The Collected Stories of Ernest Hemingway
known of a writer as imitated (usually badly) as ole Papa.
He loved it. He carefully crafted the public persona of adventurer and man's man the press and the people loved. Novels such as A Farewell To Arms and For Whom The Bell Tolls outsold the books of his contemporaries.
But time and taste caught up with him and we now see that Hemingway's novels weren't quite as good as we once thought. He certainly had no Gatsby to brag of nor even a Grapes of Wrath by the despised Steinbeck; Papa believed he was a terrible writer. For me the only novel of his worth reading now is The Sun Also Rises. It's not a great novel but it's fascinating one and much truer to the real Hemingway than the novels he wrote afterward.
But then there are the short stories. Back in the day his collected stories were referred to with great reverence as The First Forty-Nine.
Many of them were reprinted dozens if not hundreds of times around the world, textbooks included. They still deserve the reverence paid them back then.
From his story of death and dying ("A Clean, Well-Lighted Place") to his sad and ironic tale of a soldier who came back from the First World War too late for the parades ("Soldier's Home:) to the stories set in Upper Michigan this is American literature at its finest. This was Hemingway before he became Papa--the confused boy-man who went to war and then set himself up in Paris to write.
In numerous stories here he proves himself the equal of Faulkner (whom he saw as his main competition--he'd already arrogantly written off his old friend (and the guy who got him his Scribner contract) Fitzgerald) in experimenting with point of view. The line, as several critics
mentioned at the time, went from Stephen Crane to Mark Twain to Hemingway, that pure American voice. If you read Crane's The Blue Hotel
before you reading Hemingway's Collected Stories you'll hear the echoes throughout start the book.
For readers and writers alike, this is one book that should be in every serious collection. There was no more vital and powerful voice than
Hemingway's in his early stories (and I don't include The Old Man And The Sea which I never much liked; way too self-consciously Important). Today they're just as pure and perfect as they were when first published. All hail Hemingway.
I'd pick this up as soon as possible.
My Ten Favorite Collections (at least for today) Patti Abbott
Simply the Best Mysteries, edited by Janet Hutchings. This volume, put together in 1998, collected some of the best stories to win Edgar Awards that first appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. It included stories such as Patricia Highsmith’s “The Terrapin,” Stanley Ellington’s “The Blessington Method” and Philip MacDonald’s “Dream No More.” A very impressive lineup, one that makes the case for the enduring contribution EQMM made to the mystery short story.
Hard-Boiled, edited by Bill Pronzini and Jack Adrian. This collection from 1995
includes stories from the 1930s through the 1990s, giving the reader a goodoverview of the genre as well as introducing him/her to writers that mostly wrote novels like Chandler, Hammett and Himes. Also here are James Reasoner, Ed Gorman, James Ellroy and Lawrence Block.
The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien (1990). This is one of the finest collections of
stories centering on the war in Vietnam, or any war, that I’m familiar with. The title story, which lists the items found in a soldier’s backpack is a complete knockout. I have been trying to get my book group to read this for years. Maybe someone out there will.
Too Far To Go, John Updike (1979) This is a collection of stories that Updike wrote about the Maple family, closely mirroring his own, early in his career. It traces a marriage in freefall and finally dissolved. “Giving Blood” in my very favorite, but all of them are sad, cogent, true.
Shiloh and Other Stories, Bobbie Ann Mason (1982). These are the kind of stories you sink into. She along with Carver were known for creating the Kmart school, where brand names and contemporary names are important to her sense of place and time. This either dates or makes her stories more personal, depending on your view. Most of them take place in southwestern Kentucky. She can create beauty from the speech of ordinary people.
Airships, Barry Hannah. Hannah died just a few months ago, but back in 1978 Airships knocked everyone out. These stories are about as noir as it gets. You never can predict where a story is going. Just try “Coming Close to Donna” some night. The people and stories in Treme came from writers like Hannah, only a state away.
Lost in the City, Edward P. Jones. This collection of stories, published in 1992, introduced Edward P. Jones to the world, and then he went away and did something more practical to support his family until he got a large award and wrote THE KNOWN WORLD. These stories are about ordinary African-Americans living in Washington D.C. Each one is a gem.
Damn Near Dead, edited by Duane Swierscynski (2006) This is one of the strongest collections of stories on a single theme I’ve ever read. I’m sure most of you have read this collection, but several stories won awards, one at least went on to become a novel which won an Edgar. And Bill Crider's story was nominated for one, too. Stuart MacBride’s humorous tale will split your sides. I swear there is not a dud in the bunch.
Self-Help, Lorrie Moore (1985). I could have chosen her other collections just as easily. Every story of Lorrie Moore’s crackles with humor, sharp observations. I chose this collection because it contains, “How to Become a Writer,” which begins with the advice: “First, try to do something, anything else….It is best if you fail at an early age. Say fourteen….Show it to your Mom…She’ll say, “How about emptying the dishwasher.” Many of her stories are written in the second person and she pulls it off. Brilliant.
The Summer Before the Summer of Love, Marly Swick (1995). Bet you never heard of this one. Swick does not shy away from sorrow, sex, strife. Simply another great female short story writer whom no one outside the rarefied air of literary journals, now disappearing, has heard of. I have shelves full of books by Antonya Nelson, Jean Thompson, Joy Williams and on and on. All good.
Scott D. Parker
J. Sydney Jones (non-fiction)
Eric Peterson (not a collection)