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New Year's New Yorker Short Story Resolution: Installment I

Filed under: The Squib Report   Tagged: , , , , , , , , ,

Readers may recall that I resolved to read all of the short stories in a certain three-volume anthology of New Yorker stories. Here’s the first batch:

Dorothy Parker, “Arrangement in Black and White,” October 9, 1927
Plot: A silly socialite is cluelessly racist to a black jazz musician at a party.
Noah Webster alert: A “grass widow” is a divorcée.

Marc Connelly, “Barmecide’s Feast,” December 24, 1927
Plot: A wealthy couple make the rounds on Christmas Eve but lack a certain something.
Worthy of note: The word “phoned” has an apostrophe in front of it.
Noah Webster alert: “Kelly pool” is a type of pocket billiards as well as the source of the phrase “behind the eight ball.”

Joel Sayre, “Love in the Snow,” January 9, 1932
Plot: A teenage boy at a winter resort finds that love cannot conquer all.
Hot quotation: “George Bush got very embarrassed, and, although they teased and coaxed him a long time, he kept insisting that he didn’t have any girl and finally got sore and told Bill Preston to shut up before he got a rap on the jaw.”
Noah Webster alert: a “one-step dance” is, er, a kind of dance.
Dated reference: Charlie Jewtraw

Edwin Corle, “The Great Manta,” May 5, 1934
Plot: A doorman at a movie palace is unruffled by the arrival of marine competition across the street.
Hot quotation: “Sixth Avenue is an ambiguous street.”

St. Clair McKelway, “Ping-Pong,” September 12, 1936
Plot: After a game of ping-pong at a resort, a shallow fellow tells a virtual stranger about his son’s suicide.
Worthy of note: Long monologues—no longer fashionable. Elaboration of the pain lurking behind a man’s bland façade would not work today; readers would assume as a matter of course that a bland person was hiding pain.

Best story: “Love in the Snow”

—Martin Schneider


I hope you keep your resolution! This was so fun. The quotes, “worthy of note” and “Noah Webster Alert” are a brilliant approach.

When I first read your resolution I assumed you were reading those big, dark grey tomes of New Yorker short stories. I find them in used bookstores all the time. I buy them. I don’t read them. Are they later, maybe?

But your volumes are slim and cute.

Regarding the “Ping-Pong” protagonist—I wish we’d kept writing stories about ping-pong and left the bland person hiding pain behind.

Love it! These writers are very present for me at the moment, since they all figure in Thomas Kunkel’s biography of Harold Ross, which I just finished, indexes and all. I believe Parker’s story is singled out in the book as an example of one of the progressive pieces on race and racism that appeared in the magazine in that era.

Thanks! It’s more do-able since these stories are all short. That’s one thing I did like about this era, it was possible, even expected, to write a full short story that would appear on like two NYer pages. If someone tried that today it would seem precious or affected.

I know those big grey volumes, zp. I have had the 1950-1960 one for years. I urge you to try eBay — you can probably find the whole set cheap! As Emily wrote some time ago, a New Yorker enthusiast tends to win all of her eBay auctions.

By the way, I did some searches and discovered that “Barmecide’s Feast” is a reference from the Arabian Nights that denotes a meal that looks better than it ends up actually being. Which is good to know.

Hey Martin - I’d seen your resolution, but not that you’d started posting reviews. These are indeed fun. The Parker story is, I believe, well-known — or perhaps that’s only true if you’re looking into Parker’s life and work, because it gets singled out as one of her best, I think. I seem to recall I found it terribly thin, which only goes to show how large a percentage of literary merit is due to fashion.

“Grass widow” I’ve seen used in much more recent fiction, though I can’t think where - recent enough that it might (?) be considered semi-current, at least for those of us born before 1981. (I recently learned that 40% of the US population was born in 1981 or later.)

Loved the Geo. Bush quote. And btw, your comment about long monologues got me thinking: while in general you’re right, there are authors who get away with them. DeLillo is one. But usually, monologues do seem to offend our sense of realism.

Well, I’m off to a feast I’ve been invited to by someone I don’t know. Fellow name of Barmecide …

Benjamin: Check out the story and you’ll see that the DeLillo comp is off. DeLillo uses monologue to exercise his writerly muscles and create intriguing characters and stuff like that. In “Ping-Pong,” the second half of the story is literally one character yakking “and then … so then …” It becomes a very talky play. I’m not even saying the story is bad — it isn’t. But we would want the material presented differently, we would demand that the narrator do that work instead of the character.

I guess “show not tell” is a comp class cliche, but it’s a cliche for good reasons.

Okay, boss, I read “Ping Pong.” I should say, first, that I didn’t bring DeLillo up as a counter to your take on the use of monologue, because I agree with you, in general. I just meant that you got me thinking about the degree to which the device is still used, and by whom.

Now that I’ve read “Ping Pong,” however, I have developed a grudging respect for the way it’s used in the story. It’s true that “Ping Pong” would be a more affecting story if McKelway had used the show-don’t-tell principle, and using a monologue to tell 3/4 of your story is almost always a rookie mistake — but not this time.

McKelway’s narrator introduces Mr. Powers, the monologuist, this way: “It was perfectly clear that he had me cornered, that he had a great deal to say, and that he intended to say it.” So far, so good - after all, this could be said of any author. “I had taken him for a man shy and taciturn, and I realized now that he was one of those people who, naturally aggressive and voluble, affect the opposite characteristics in order to lure their victims on and catch them unawares … They forego the pleasures of ordinary conversation in order to taste the grand triumph of an uninterrupted monologue.” This might seem to be a feeble attempt to justify the device (I certainly thought it was, at first), but once you learn what kind of man Mr. Powers is, it becomes obvious that it’s no accident.

After all, Mr. Powers, while not a very complicated character, has a defining characteristic: his bullying desire to win at all costs. (Hence the “grand triumph” of monologue.) And as he tells his story, it becomes clear that his entire life with his youngest son George was an attempt to beat him into submission - to force upon him all his own habits and attitudes, and George’s stubborn refusal to go along. In the climactic argument just before George’s suicide, Mrs. Powers (according to Mr. Powers, anyhow), asks — twice — “George, why don’t you answer your father?” And it’s clear that his suicide is his answer. Yet the true tragedy of the story is that Mr. Powers is deaf to this sort of argument. To him, suicide is simply another form of quitting, and he is impervious to any guilt or remorse about his own role in his son’s death. The monologue is both an indication of this (the father carrying on the argument with his son through a proxy) and expressive of his bullying, selfish personality. It may be, as you say, that he’s hiding his pain, but I rather thought he was less complex than that.

I don’t love the story, but I have to say I have more respect for it than I would’ve expected.

How delightful!

You have me pegged. I was hasty and imprecise on a couple of matters. I grant that your DeLillo comp was apter than my response would appear to allow, and my take on the story was a little glib.

As for our symbolically named Mr. Powers — it’s not so much that he is himself in pain but rather that there is pain/weakness/vulnerability in his life to which he is oblivious. I think that “oblivious” captures the character a bit better than “bullying” etc., although he is those things too. “Driven”?

I think we’re in basic agreement, though, even if you’re a far more skilled close reader than I am. It’s a competent story to be sure, which happens to use a device that has dated.

“Driven” is good, yes. And I didn’t mean to suggest you were either hasty or imprecise about the story, not at all; I was just surprised by how the story’s gambit seemed to fit it. When I first completed reading the story, I was unimpressed and irritated by its weak finish and the narrator’s blank response to Mr. Powers’ tale. Strangely, though, the piece stayed with me, and began to make more sense - very few stories do that, especially not ones with such flat characters, so I felt compelled to share my new view of it.

And I enjoyed your capsule reviews, glib or not - so keep ‘em coming.

Yes, it’s really not bad. Deft within hidebound limitations.

Oh, there’s more coming, oh yes.

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