Quick refresher: I'm reading a batch of short story anthologies. Calling The Wind collects African-American prose; Outlaw's Bible of American Literature collects cuttings from various writers whom the anthologists deem underground; The Best American Short Stories of the Century explains itself in the title; and Dangerous Visions is a 60's era collection of science fiction that aimed to push the boundaries of that theoretically imaginative (but in practice, often reactionary) genre.
From Calling the Wind:
Esther by Jean Toomer: A shopkeeper's young daughter witnesses a magnificent oration by Barlo, a visionary street preacher, who becomes the lodestone of her imagination. As she grows, her dreams and desires rotate around the memory of Barlo, and when he returns to town as a newly wealthy investor, she is compelled to present herself to him. For her the stakes are apocalyptic, but is Barlo still a high-minded man of God, or have commerce and class besmirched him?
Toomer's vivid prose has a controlled poetry and hypnagogic mysticism that delights and terrifies this reader. In a mere six pages he covers so much thematic ground; the purgatorial poetry of race, class, gender and commerce in America is held aloft like a scarred fist for our consideration. Essential.
The Hands: a Story by Marita Bonner: A distraught woman (we never learn exactly why she's so upset, but she seems to have deep-rooted anxiety) boards a subway car and soothes herself by imagining the Christlike life of a man on the car with her. The life of dignity she conjours up for an anonymous working man comes forth in terse, thick, anxious fragments, like a desperate effort to make hard life into good life. A lot of sorrow, loneliness, and aspiration expressed in a fragmented poetry. 4 pages. Another wallop of a story.
From Outlaw's Bible:
Jew Boy by Alan Kaufman. In an anthology where most writers get 3-4 pages, editor Alan Kaufman has been marvelously generous with writer Alan Kaufman, permitting him a roomy 10 pages for a first person tale about being a street person in San Fran, hanging out with a shaman, and kicking alcoholism. It's written with the clever/glib/witty/cliched/original verve of an old-school ad man; a very sane Mad Man writing about the struggle against a mind-warping disease. I can't help wondering how Joy Williams would retell it; she'd rewire the prose into something as dangerous and unpredictable as a hungry coral snake, with no cutesy-poo sentimentality left in it. As it stands, this reminds me of that Seekers into the Mystery comic I poked at a while back; it's a kindred Spirit.
The Journal of Albion Moonlight by Kenneth Patchen: The title gives you a sense of the grandiloquent prog-rock mystification you're in for, but not the motor oil fumes that pong off of this odd collage. Two things this whimsical rhapsody of grievances and passions recalls to me:
- The distinction that some underground cartoonist (either Robert Crumb or Spain Rodriguez, I forget) made (in some Comics Journal interview) between the Flower Power hippies of the West Coast and the edgy, dangerous hippies of the East. This story feels like an unstable alloy of the two.
- Jack Smith, best known for his fantastical underground film Flaming Creatures. I've seen a documentary on Smith (Jack Smith and the drowning of Atlantis, well worth seeing) that reveals how lovely his fantabulous art was, and how he crippled his own career with pointless animosity towards anyone who might help him. I've also read a biographical article about Patchen (Steloff, F. (1975). Kenneth patchen. Journal of Modern Literature, 4(4), 805) that reveals Mr. Patchen suffered from a similar strain of self-ruining puritanism.
From Dangerous Visions:
The Day After The Day After The Martians Came by Fredrick Pohl: The Martians have landed, and they aren't at all imposing, so people immediately repurpose all their racist jokes for the occasion. The punchline is a black guy expressing relief that someone else is now the butt of those jokes. It's the kind of windup/pitch upon which SF relies. The idea that humanity will always have a pecking order, and one way to move up in that order is to have someone else lower than you, is sadly evergreen.
From Best American Short Stories:
Double Birthday by Willa Cather: A gay young man is no longer young (but is coded very gay) and has come down in the world from his fancy upbringing. He wants to give his uncle a proper birthday, and that means wrangling champagne and guests. The principal guest is a dazzling woman they've been friends with since she was young; she hasn't come down in the world, and has drifted away from them, but is ready to reconnect. From this low-concept starting point, Cather dives into her characters' struggles and sorrows, and reveals the ways that human connection can be a balm to our wearying lives. The consolation we can take in good companionship shines out as vividly as a candle on a darkening evening.
Cather is marvelous at revealing the ways that immigrant populations enrich America (the men of the story keep prewar Germany alive in their modest house), and has a gift for showing her characters through each others' eyes. Both of these strengths are on display in this story, along with Cather's graceful, unshowy prose. Cather's characterization of both women and men is so rich and finely tuned that I'm tempted to credit her butch lesbianism with helping her understand multiple genders, but perhaps I overstep. At any rate, she was a wonder; I think it's sexism to blame for the fact she isn't as famous as Twain or Faulkner.