Tag: siblings

Peter Taylor, “A Spinster’s Tale” (1938)

Peter Taylor and his wife Eleanor in 1946. (Wikimedia Commons)

Peter Taylor and his wife Eleanor in 1946. (Wikimedia Commons)

As poorly read as I am I had not heard of Peter Taylor, or at least could not remember him, until the Library of America dropped the first of his two volumes of collected stories at the door this week. I must have read some of his stories in the New Yorker in the 80s and 90s, but none stand out clipped in memory. “A Spinster’s Tale” begins when the girl telling the story is 13 years old. Like William Trevor’s Mr. Jeffs she has too vivid an imagination but is not as cruel. She sees Old Mister Speed the drunkard hobble by below her window regularly, “persistent yet, withal, seemingly without destination,” building up anxieties about him in her mind. He is a threat to her. Entirely imaginary, but consequential. She ends up calling the cops on him when he seeks the house’s shelter from a storm. Along the way there are psychologically tantalizing parallels between Mr. Speed and the girl’s older, often drunk brother (“my desire form him to strike me and my delight in his natural odor”) and with the girl’s father: “I knew that it was more than a taste for whiskey they had in common.” The girl grows up a little, asserts herself, asserts herself too much: “I felt I had acted wrongly, with courage but without wisdom.” And then the call to the cops: “I was frightened by the thought of the cruelty which I found I was capable of, a cruelty which seemed inextricably mixed with what I had called courage. I looked at him lying out there in the rain and despised and pitied him at the same time, and I was afraid to go minister to the helpless old Mr. Speed.”

The Southern Review, Autumn 1940

Faulkner, “Two Soldiers” (1942)

The Anguish of Departure: Giorgio de Chirico, 1914 (Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo)

The Anguish of Departure: Giorgio de Chirico, 1914 (Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo)

A story despised by critics, beloved by Faulkner. “I like, it” he wrote, ” it because it portrays a type which I admire—not only a little boy, and I think little boys are all right, but a true American: an independent creature with courage and bottom and heart—a creature which is not vanishing, even though every articulate medium we have—radio, moving pictures, magazines—is busy day and night telling us that it has vanished, has become a sentimental and bragging liar.” I like it because very few stories make me cry. This one did. The relationship between the two brothers is all.

Pete is 18 or 19. The younger boy is not named. They’re in the habit of listening to the radio outside a deaf woman’s house at night. They hear about Pear Harbor. Pete understands. The younger boy doesn’t. Pete is restless until he decides to enlist. His mother is shattered but won’t stop him. His brother doesn’t yet know how shattered he’ll be. Pete takes the bus for Memphis. The next day, his brother finds ways to follow him. The trip is hilarious. The boy’s interactions with the bus driver, with the Law, with soldiers: critics may have seen it all as stereotypical and demeaning. But the humor is never crass. It’s moving, as almost everyone indulges the young boy. Pete hasn’t left for Little Rock yet. He shows up at the recruiting station. His brother pleads. “I got to go too. I got to. It hurts my heart, Pete.” Maybe that’s the line critics disliked so much. It made me cry actual tears. Pete lectures his brother about doing his part–he doesn’t say so, but he’s telling him to be a soldier on the home front, hence the title of the story. The boy returns home.

There’s a whiff of the war-office propaganda reel about it, a Sgt. York shucksiness that defines each boy in his way. But it’s in the distance, or maybe it’s the reader’s contrivance becase we’re not supposed to be so taken by a story that, in Spielberg’s hands, would have had us flooding the theater in tears.

Saturday Evening Post, March 28, 1942

Malamud, “The Place Is Different Now” (1943)

homeless bernard malamud the place is different now

(Karim Corban)

 Wally Mullins is a bum ever since he stole money from the subway service where he worked. He’s just out of the hospital after his brother the cop, Jimmy, gave him a beating and nearly gave him gangrene (what’s with gangrene? The snows of Kilimanjaro.) ordered him to get out of the neighborhood. He looks around for a place to sleep. Runs into his mother and sister. The sister is as cruel as jimmy but she can’t beat him up. The mother wants to give him money so he can get his shirt out of the laundry, and does. He uses the money first to buy some food, then hands to a tavern, and there, Jimmy is drinking a beer, and sees him. The chase. Another massive beating. Bloodied, Wally goes to the only friend he has, the barber Mr, Davido, who cares for him because during the Depression the barber had slapped his own son, when his son was a bum, and has never seen his son since. Mr. Davido shaves Wally, whose tears mix with the shaving cream. A very touching story of regret and cruelty. 

 

American Prefaces, Spring 1943