This project of reading short fiction anthologies isn't taking long enough, so I've added a fifth book: Plays in One Act, edited by Daniel Halpern. I'm aware that reading theatrical scripts is a bit like reading recipes without benefit of doing the cooking or tasting the end product, but I've been enjoying scripts in written form since childhood and I intend to keep that party going. Anyway, there is exactly zero chance of seeing any of these plays produced anywhere near me, so I must enjoy them in The Greatest Theatre Of All... That Of The IMAGINATION.
From Plays in One Act:
The Man Who Turned Into a Stick by Kobo Abe: Right off the bat we set asail on choppy seas with this challenge to the directoral imagination from the author of Woman in the Dunes (the film of which is a delight). The promise of the title is honored, as a man turns into a stick, to the sorrow of his (offstage) child. Why is he transformed into a stick, and why are a man and woman from Hell trying to obtain the stick from a pair of young hippies? Beyond such narrative questions loom the deeper question of how to represent a stick which characters use to tap out rhythms, yet which is a speaking character. The stage notes suggest having the actor who plays the role of Stick manipulate a prop stick, with the actor and prop playing a bifurcated role to match the dual identity of the man/stick. Perhaps the man should be a dancer or gymnast, physically enacting the near-constant drumming the hippie boy performs with the stick. By such means, an obscure, talky script can become kinetic and exciting.
Finding the Sun by Edward Albee:
A gaggle of characters, representing an array of relationships (spouses, lovers, parents, children) meet on the beach, and their yearnings and curiosities propel them from person to person. Loves and sorrows come spilling out, and if you think Albee's plays are always about toxic harpies raking each other with verbal claws, this showcases the gentler side of his worldview. Finding the Sun might be regarded as an early turn to this more hopeful side of Albee, coming as it did, in the early 80s, in the wake of some of his nastiest, and most critically derided, plays. I'd love to see a good production of it. I surely never shall.
From Dangerous Visions:
Shall the Dust Praise Thee? by Damon Knight: a short pastiche of King James Biblical style that offers the prospect of a Judgement Day in which there's no one to judge, humanity having died off in some unspecified catastrophe. God comes to judge but finds Himself judged by an accusatory graffito that may be Humanity's last prayer. An imaginative inhabiting of sacred archaisms moves this past the bluntness of its message.
If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister? by Theodore Sturgeon:
"Hello, I'm the author's stand-in/mouthpiece, and I'm here to tell you about why the author's crackpot theories and masturbation fantasies are Secret Cosmic Truths: blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH..." (etc.)
Robert Heinlein was the king of this kind of thing; Ayn Rand was the Empress Upon Her Throne. Sturgeon, who may be best known for Sturgeon's Law (to whit: 90% of everything is crap) was the court fool, because his brilliant scheme for human perfection is fathers having sex with their daughters. His pseudoscientific, hand-wavy justifications for this idiocy ignore the copious empirical evidence to the contrary.
Also, Sturgeon is the kind of infuriating sexist who would probably deny being a sexist; after all, he luuuuvs women, with their bouncing bosoms and winsome giggles. Can someone explain to me why Sturgeon is revered in certain circles? Editor Harlan Ellison tries, but his case for Sturgeon's sainthood is: when Ellison was getting divorced, Sturgeon wrote to Ellison and told him (Ellison) that he (Ellison) was one of the few good people in the world. Anyway, If All Men Were Brothers... is 90% of everything.
From Calling the Wind:
Blues For Pablo by John Stewart: Pablo, A middle-aged slaughterhouse owner, periodically cuts his finger and mixes his blood with that of the animals killed by his business, as a symbol of his respect for the animals. He also visits the library every week, and consults the same book every time; a biography of a bullfighter whose courage and dignity he reveres. His old-fashioned notions are thwarted by his young swinger girlfriend. She believes in erotic games; he believes in spiritual symbolism. These aren't inherently immiscible, and she's be a perfect fit for a like-minded heathen, but he's a monogamy-minded man. He's not violent or wrathful; just befuddled and wounded. Pricking your own finger doesn't mean no one else can gore you.
We get to experience something of Pablo's imaginative yet stoic interiority, but we only view his girlfriend from the outside; she's a femme fatale who swaps out different mask-like demeanors depending on whether she's being, or playing, the thoughtful student, the daddy's girl, the bratty lover. Not the most glowing representation of female sexual agency, but it beats anything Theo Sturgeon's got on the menu.
Son in the Afternoon by John A. Williams: A professional young African-American man is unhappy that his mother, who is a maid for a rich white family, is more solicitous of a bratty white child than she ever was of her own children. He enacts a balancing of the books that is witty and nasty. Whether he's setting things right or keeping a cycle of trauma going is open to debate.
The protagonist/narrator is hip and angry, but not so varnished with irony that he conceals his blended sympathy for his mother and his deep emotional pain. It's a funny, suspenseful story, but it unveils the damage done by binding people more tightly to their employers than to their kin.
From Outlaw Bible:
Hells Angel by Ralph "Sonny" Barger: A high-ranking Hell's Angel tells his side of the story regarding the murder at the Rolling Stone's Altamont concert. Two of my takeaways:
One: The whole thing begins when someone suggests getting the Hell's Angels to provide security, on the hypothesis that no one would dare mess with the Angels. The Angels parked their bikes in front of the stage, and one trigger for the violence was that stoned concertgoers started messing with the bikes, provoking a predictable reaction. The next time you hear someone suggest that a big show of force will keep a crowd under control, tell 'em about Altamont.
Two: Barger mocks the idea that the deadly violence at Altamont changed anything fundamental, because for his peers and him, savage violence was an ordinary part of life. He essentially tells those of us who are shocked by the Altamont horror to check our privilege.
Street Justice by Chuck Zito: Just when I was thinking that nobody should hire a Hell's Angel to provide security, Chuck Zito, bodyguard to the stars, actor, and former Hell's Angel, comes along to set me straight. He demonstrates a savvy and restraint that made him an ideal security professional, as long as you didn't mind some terrifying practical jokes.
I've given the editors of this book some guff, but they did a good job presenting Zito's testimony on the heels of Barger's. It showed me just how quick I was to become prejudiced against outlaw biker types after reading Barger's story, and how wrong I was.
Troia by Bonnie Bremser: Bremser was a beat writer, and here she tells us about her quest to travel across the border from Mexico to Texas in search of her imprisoned husband. Seems like it was at least as hard to make that trip then as it is now. She writes with casual, jazz-riff lucidity, and reveals an oddly petulant poor-person sensibility. She'll turn tricks to get pretty much anything, but when the US Consolate offers her a bus ride directly to where she needs to go, sidestepping a lot of street hassle, she's all "you're not the boss of me" and practically poops on the rug before leaving, for no reason that I can suss out.
As a kid I loved fantasy quest stories, and now i love reality-based quest stories (see also: As I Lay Dying) just as much. Bremser delivers the hypnagogic quest story the way I like it, and is another female beat writer whom I prefer to Jack Kerouac.
Freewheeling Frank by Frank Reynolds as told to Michael McClure: Trigger warning for rape. Not the only misogynistic text in this reading session, but certainly the foulest. Frank, another Hell's Angel, tells McClure, another beat poet, that Hell's Angels don't really do as much raping as their reputation suggests. Then he spins an outrageously tall-tale version of what happens at biker rallies, and claims that pretty much all the women get raped. Get your story straight, Frank. If you like S. Clay Wilson's luridly nasty underground comics, or you like your tall tales to have a hard R rating, then Frank and Michael have a story for you, full of cartoonish violence and sexual abuse. Watta loada laffs.
From Best American Short Stories:
Greenleaf by Flannery O'Connor: Mrs. May, a brittle, pushy, judgemental farmowner, wages constant struggle with a mysterious bull, her snotty sons, her shiftless employee, and everybody else too. Apparently my 12th grade English teacher was a thought leader in O'Connor studies, because her theory that this story is a religious allegory (the bull is Christ, y'see) seems to have become the standard take. I don't disagree, but I see the allegorical elements as the tectonic plates of the story; the life of it is in the stigmatic satire the misanthropic O'Connor inflicts on her entire cast. It's interesting that Mrs. Greenleaf, the only character who's tapped into Jesus, is a lower-than-low-church evangelical. O'Connor, a staunch pre-Vatican II Catholic, clearly regards Mrs. Greenleaf as unspeakably gauche, yet in touch with the vital truth. Better, it seems, to be NOKD than an unbeliever. Anyway, this unbeliever though the story was hilarious in its audacity. In O'Connor, Christian Love and despising everybody come together like chocolate and peanut butter.
One fun detail: Mrs. May is preoccupied with the practical yet eroticized fear that the bull will sire her cows with unworthy DNA. Spoiler warning: The bull has a more cataclysmic penetration in mind. The keenly controlled, finely wrought climax, unspools with the suggestion that it be understood as an objective correlative for a wrenching Road-to-Damascus style conversion. This transition from casual allegory to iconographic intensity lifts the tale out of its comedy-of-trashy-manners base, into a martyriffic sublimity.
The Ledge by Lawrence Sargent Hall: On Christmas morning, a cranky but skillful fisherman takes his young son and nephew duck hunting on a thin ledge of island. You can see where this is going, right? It goes there, with Jack Londonesque attention to the details of Human Vs. Nature that I find beguiling.
The story begins with the fisherman's wife, and her secret wish to escape from her harsh husband. The story ends with her getting her Christmas wish, at a Pyrrhic price. All that remains of her son is "a rubber boot with a sock and a live starfish in it." The almost Ovidian transformation suggested by that live starfish is one of many sprinklings of sorrowful magic throughout a story that never strains for fancifulness.