The story starts off worrisomely as another one of those meandering character sketches, the writer-protagonist meeting an unusual, eccentric so and so, the eccentric’s monologue going on and on and on, with a few philosophical asides along the way, a few reflections denoting the writer’s detachment, a touch of discomfort, bemusement or distaste on his part, and then scene. Singer developed the formula to excess. Gets old fast. The eccentric in this case is a rich old man in Miami Beach, Max Flederbush. The story has all the trappings of the Singer formula, but it comes alive, ironically, as Flederbush describes the funereal atmosphere of his aged and dying set, dying in a sea of luxuries. There’s a lot here that echoes William Trevor’s “The General’s Day,” a story taking on greater significance the more stories I read. “If man is formed in God’s image, I don’t envy God.” “It’s scary to think the human species will last so long.” Getting old is torture. It is an invitation to cynicism.
It seems preposterous to be reading the American short story and not include William Maxwell, who in his younger years had that Matthew Broderick-Ferris Bueller look. Error corrected. “A Final Report” is an inventory of a life remembered at the more intimate margins of a probate report. The narrator is remembering. The life remembered is that of Pear M. Donald, who never married, who was a neighbor of the narrator’s family, and who became Aunt Donald and the narrator’s mother best friend until the two women had a mysterious falling out. The story is a look back from her old age: “It took her almost twenty years of not wanting to live anymore,” a line right out of Trevor’s “The General’s Day.” There are memories of the narrator’s childhood from the time she carried him on a pillow when he was sickly, but mostly it’s an account of her decline, her cats, her house, in the elegiac prose of terminal loneliness: “she must have subsisted on air and old memories and fear–the fear of something happening to her cats.” The story ends on what could have been a dry account of the financial settlement of her estate. It isn’t. Each dollar sign is the cremated remains of a long possession, and these final lines: “It would have been a pleasure to go through Aunty Donald’s things, up to a point, and after that probably nauseating. This is the past unillumined by memory or love. The sediment of days, what covered Troy and finally would have covered her if my brother hadn’t come and taken her away.”
After hazy and rambling “Los Angeles,” I wanted to give Emma Cline a second look. “Son of Friedman” is more sharply told, but remains all shimmers and throw-away insights. There’s too much knowingness, too much judgment contaminating the eye, keeping it from being more penetrating. No Flaubertian detachment in Cline. She’s at the table, hovering, like an intrusive waiter not content to just set the table. The first part of the story is in a restaurant where George Friedman is waiting for William. The intrusions are especially pronounced when Cline weasles judgy thoughts into her characters–you’re never really sure whose thoughts they are–by immunizing them with question marks: “How old was she? Twenty?” “Had he been an editor?” William is a successful producer. George no longer is, and hadn’t been much of one. Both are older, but William’s managed to keep it going, if unimaginatively so: his latest project is a buddy movie. George is barely hanging on. “He was seventy-one, with a fake knee and a hip due for replacement.” George has a son, Benji, William’s godson, in and out of rehab but now showing his first attempt at a movie at a dingy moviehouse nearby, to which he’s invited father and godfather. Over their meal George tries to push a project on William but is gently rebuffed, the same way that William rebuffed two groupies who’d tried to have their selfie taken with him. George has sunk that low. They go to see Benji’s movie. “The theatre was one of those single-screen places any schmuck with a camera could rent out and show his movie for a weekend. You could probably show your vacation photos.” Has the New Yorker always used theatre as opposed to theater or is that one of Cline’s conceits? It’s a dreadful movie, but the scene is for Benji to show his greater affection and respect for William than for his father: another stab at the old man, who Benji refers to “last but not least” as “my old man.” The Red Sea-parted distance between father and son is sharply described: “Benji was visibly grooving on the sound of his own voice, on being the focus of an audience. George could remember that feeling, acutely, though you were never supposed to make it clear you liked it, and certainly not as clear as Benji was making it, peacocking back and forth, lassoing the mike cord in one hand.” But these stories about the movie business are like stories about the writing business, almost always more interesting to those who’ve lived or worked them than to their audience. Cline is telling us how much she knows the business. But the business itself is not that interesting. It’s one of the least interesting, most common, dullest, shallowest businesses around, an illusion of the illusive aim. So the story’s one strength, that guttered relationship between father and son, in whose murky liquid is reflected the relationship between George and William, is lost to Cline’s performance trills.
A two-page sketch, a 76-years-old man escaping from the advancing fascists (during the Spanish Civil War), but too exhausted to go on. All pathos, all pity. He talks of his animals that he took care of until the last minute before he was forced to leave. He thinks the cat can take care of itself, but not so much the other animals–who, it turns out, are like him: his fate is sealed. The fascists’ planes were not up. “That and the fact that cats know how to look after themselves was all the good luck that old an would ever have.” The story is intended to be heartbreaking. Visualizing the old man, it is. It is a universal image: the civilian at the end of his rope, and luck. Those are his last moments, witnessed apparently by a news reporter. Unlike “Cat in the Rain,” the cats in this case are self-sufficient: it’s the old man who is reduced to the state of a kitten, shivering with uncertainty, no Hadley to save him.
Notably, the sketch was possibly intended as a news article: “It is based upon an Easter Sunday stopover at the Ebro River during his coverage of the Spanish Civil War in April 1938. Although employed by the North American Newspaper Association (NANA), Hemingway apparently decided to submit it to Ken Magazine as a short story instead of using it as a news article.”
Mrs. Mantsey is an aging, stuck-in-her-ways woman whose only pleasure in life seems to be the views of the city from her boardinghouse in New York. Mrs. Black plans to build an extension of the building in front of Mantsey’s view, which would be blocked. Matsey panics, offers $1,000 to Black not to build. Black had offered her a room in the extension, which would have fixed the problem. But Mantsey doesn’t want to move. Black takes Mantsey for nuts. She’s right. Mantsey next sets fire to the construction’s wares after the first day. But she catches pneumonia and dies–happy, because she was able to look at her view one last time. (Compare to Carver’s “The Idea.” Why do we assume that looking out from a greater distance is OK, but looking from a nearer distance is voyeurism, at least when one is within one’s own home?)