Start 2019 right, with more short story and one act reviews.
From Plays in One Act:
On Sundays by Lynne Alvarez: A woman lives a quiet life in an apartment (represented as a box) with a mysterious, slumbering beast. When the beast awakens it attacks her. Meanwhile, a man passes by, becomes enamored of the woman, and spends the rest of the play courting her from afar. He chatters happily to her, never noticing her plight, just as she never notices him. Will the woman escape from the beast? Will the man win her love, or prove useful at all? Fantastical elements (Wind-blown leafs the size of people, and that beast) and charming but oblivious talk remind me of the great poet Kenneth Koch's gentler, dotty plays.
Stops by Robert Auletta: An old woman's unpredictably screwy reminiscences veer from rhapsodic to horrifying and back again in an expressionistic torrent full of ambiguous laugh lines. Other characters appear and play perplexing roles, suggesting that the woman is in a care facility. Her monologue shows a captious but uncertain view of life, and is a tour de force for author and performer alike. The title refers to the stage directions that punctuate the monologue, as the woman repeatedly takes three steps, then stops; but it may also reference her story's hairpin reversals.
From Dangerous Visions:
What Happened to August Clarot? by Larry Eisenberg: A trifle of a comic pastiche; a Parisian journalist seeks a missing scientist down mean streets with names like Rue de Daie and Boulevard Sans Honneur. The author plays the antiquarian pulp rhetoric game with skill, but editor Ellison's oddly dismissive introduction suggests that he's not sure he isn't publishing the least of his submissions.
Ersatz by Henry Slesar: Perhaps I was too hard on Theodore Sturgeon in my last entry. In the introduction to this item, Ellison declares his love for Slesar while denying that the two of them are engaged in "faggotry." Perhaps this homophobic slurring is intended as a tribute to the following tale's sensibility.
A soldier in a dire future war stumbles into a safe house where the amenities are ersatz imitations of real coffee, bacon, etc. Then an alluring woman arrives and flirts with the soldier. Anyone who's at all familiar with SF's addiction to gimcrack twist endings can see where this is going, more or less, but I expected the woman to be a robot or something. Nope.
She's a trans woman, and the soldier responds by cruelly beating her up.
The author thinks his story is about the horror of war, and in his afterword, gives himself a standing ovation for having the tough-mindedness to say war sucks. Unbeknownst to him, though, his story is really about transphobia, and how natural it seems to Slesar. I was angry with him, but the problem isn't that he, individually, was transphobic. The problem was that our society was, and is.
Back in the 90s, a guy in my high school's talent show sang a song about going to a bar, realizing it was a gay/tranz establishment, and "hilariously" beating everyone up. A panel of teachers had approved this for inclusion in the show, and the audience roared with laughing approval. I did, too.
I'm grateful that my college years began with The Crying Game, which eased me into a more thoughtful and compassionate understanding of people whose need to live their gender identities is so great that they choose to stare down all the haters in order to be themselves. In my senior year I fell in love with Japanese cartoon sensation Ranma 1/2, about a boy who's cursed to periodically turn into a pretty girl. It got me to ponder my own diffidence about my maleness, as well as the fact of Ranma's maleness, even in a female body.
Anyway, in his introduction to the story under review, Ellison states that "Slesar can kill you with a sentence." Brandon Teena was not available for comment.
From Best American Short Stories:
Defender of the Faith by Philip Roth: in the middle of WWII, a battle-hardened Sargent is redeployed from Europe to a base in the USA, where his charges include a trio of Privates who, like the Sargent, are Jewish. The trio's self-appointed spokesman is a seemingly sincere, devout and well-spoken young man who seeks dispensation after special dispensation on religious grounds and for alleged family responsibilities. The attentive Sargent suspects that the sweet-faced Private may be a manipulative, lying weasel.
is complicated by the Sargent's vulnerability to the Private's
emotional ploys. Home, family, faith... these are powerful triggers for
young people who have been uprooted by war, and with cruel expertise, the Private plays the kind of sociopaths I'm-your-buddy games that conmen rely upon to harness your power. It becomes a subtle cat-and-mouse game in which the distinction between sentimentality and true values gets tested again and again. There's a false defender of the faith, and, perhaps, a true one who never expected to find himself in such a role.
Criers and Kibitzers, Kibitzers and Criers by Stanley Elkin: Mr. Greenspahn, a grocery store owner, can only see the bad in people ever since his son's death. His employees are lazy thieves; his customers are cheapskates, grifters and shoplifters. The guys at the local lunchspot are all either criers, drunk on their own sorrows, or kibitzers, forever yucking it up in the teeth of other peoples' misery, neither of them alive to the full spectrum of life.
Just as Moby Dick will give you a thorough grounding in 19th century whaling practices, this story will teach you about running a small grocery. It also does a delicate job of letting us glimpse peoples' good and bad qualities, while showing us how Mr. Greenspahn's grief-colored glasses filter out all the good. The possibility of a breakthrough comes when Greenspahn discovers a sad truth about his late son which forces a reconsideration, and kinder evaluation, of human frailty.
From The Outlaw Bible of American Literature:
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe: I didn't think I could bear another Hells Angel story, but Tom Wolfe is a dazzling storyteller. An entertaining prose style can pull me through. Ken "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" Kesey invites the Hells Angels to a small town where Kesey and his crew are hanging around, and the Angels show up. Guess what happens then? Did you guess "a big debauch?" Give yourself a gold star. Wolfe emphasizes that all the sex is consenting, which is a relief.
At one point Kesey asks Sonny Barger how the Angels pick new members, and Sonny replies: "We don't pick 'em. We recognize 'em." In similar fashion, the Angels and the Kesey crew recognize each other as fellow swaggering outlaws, so playfulness and good vibes abound. Good to know. Goodbye, Angels.
Outlaw Woman by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: Roxanne is part of an extremist radical group, and has to go on the lam to avoid arrest. She and her cohorts live a hardscrabble version of The Americans, full of disguises and safe houses. In the meantime, she decides to complicate things even further by falling in love with a working man. At first, he seems to be an easygoing dude who'd be entirely compatible with her values, but it turns out he's a big believer in hitting uppity women. Dunbar-Ortiz regards herself as a women's libber, but fails to shut this abuse down. It's a pretty granular account of how relationships can short-circuit values, plans, and self-respect. It seems that Dunbar-Ortiz became a professor, so all those right-wingers whining about radical professors on our college campuses are correct after all. Doesn't seem to have stopped right-wing trashmonsters from taking over the USA.
From Calling the Wind:
What's Your Problem? by Robert Boles: A single man in the city has gotten to know a white neighboring family, to the extent of having a drink with them, and now their teen son drops by his apartment from time to time to play the (unnamed) protagonist's mandolin. One day, the father comes by to ask our hero's help with a terrible situation. The son has killed the family dog in a grotesque fashion, and since his parents seem entirely stymied by the horror of their son's evident psychopathy, they've turned to the one person with whom their son seems to have bonded.
The bond is only seeming, though; our hero is one of modernist fiction's many isolated, diffident men, and while he shows willingness to help out, he resents being dragged into this dreadful situation. The
neighbors try to establish their non-racism in microaggressive fashion,
but this, like other stories in this collection, is a tale of black
liberation from white oppression. They're asking more than a favor, and he concludes that he's not obligated to fetch and carry their emotional labor.
The Distributors by Henry Dumas: Amway by way of The Prisoner in this Phil Dickian story of two young men looking for work. They get embroiled in a cultish direct marketing scheme which has a distressing all-or-nothing fraternal initiation prepared for new recruits. Their mysterious product, Rekcus, (Alexa spelled backwards) is a totalizing all-purpose one-size-fits-all consumerist dream product that threatens to spread like a virus. As with Philip Dick, a clear, unfussy prose style (shot through with the kind of bewildering jargon that Madison Avenue appropriated from psychedelic culture) calmly narrates a scenario of justifiable hysteria. The author's paranoid vision of encroaching doom may have been prescient on a personal level; he was killed in his mid-thirties, apparently shot by a cop for jumping a turnstile. Race is never mentioned in the story, but would a white guy get shot dead for dodging a fare?