The Jelly-Bean by F. Scott Fitzgerald

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Happy Thanksgiving!  The short story I read this week, “The Jelly-Bean”,  by F. Scott Fitzgerald doesn’t have a Thanksgiving theme. The title brings to mind a different holiday, but the story isn’t about Easter, either.  The term Jelly-Bean is given to men who don’t have money and don’t work.  The more pleasant term used in the story is “idle”.  The story is set in Tarlton, Georgia so maybe Jelly-Bean is a southern expression, too.

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The Jelly-Bean’s name is Jim Powell, who unexpectedly gets invited by a wealthier acquaintance to a – you guessed it – party.  This is Fitzgerald, after all.  Foreshadowing The Great Gatsby,  Jim encounters Nancy with whom he is madly in love.  Of course, she is in a different class than he is.  Jim’s stroke of luck is just that.  He knows how to role the dice in crap-shooting.  With his luck, Jim manages to gain a passionate kiss from Nancy.  The reader, along with Nancy and even Jim, knows that’s all it is – one kiss.

The stories I’ve read so far from Tales of the Jazz Age have been just short of brilliant.  The possible exceptions would be “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and “A Diamond As Big As The Ritz” – both of which I read before blogging. I think Fitzgerald’s elaborate writing style lends itself better to novels than short stories.  Sometimes the stories seem to skip over needed detail – detail that could have been better expressed in a novel.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

I’ve enjoyed the commentary from Fitzgerald, himself, at the beginning of the collection.  He indicated that this story was his first “collaboration”.  He needed someone with a Southern experience and it just so happened that his wife, Zelda, grew up in the South.  I was reminded of Zelda’s background not too long ago when I watched Woody Allen’s film, Midnight In Paris – his humorous film version of the Jazz Age and the Lost Generation.

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Graham Greene’s The Power and The Glory

Until I read Graham Greene’s novel, The Power and the Glory, I was not aware of a time in the 1930’s when one Mexican state outlawed Catholicism and priests were rounded up and shot.  This historical backdrop presents both a mesmerizing character study and a psychological and spiritual thriller as two unnamed players make their way to a final showdown.

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The lieutenant lives by the law of the land.  He is idealistic, rigid in his beliefs, absolute in his thoughts as he pursues the final priest in his state.  On the outside, he is cold and calculating, taking and killing hostages from the villages that refuse to give up the priest. Greene gives the the reader a glimpse inside the lieutenant, though.  Remembering wrongs committed by the church during his childhood, the lieutenant becomes less black and white and more gray.  I would say that this is typical of Greene; however, this is the first of his novels that I’ve read, so I can’t really say what is typical of him.  He paints his characters so well that I can’t help but feel I’ve read more of his work than I actually have.  The lieutenant, though, is not the focal character of this novel.

As the priest travels from village to village seeking safety that’s never really there, the reader becomes acquainted with his beliefs, too.  Beliefs that are a mixture of faith and doubt and resignation and fear.  Unlike the lieutenant, the priest hangs on to his idealism by a very thin thread.  He’s always one step away from that thread being completely severed.  He refers to himself as a “whiskey priest” (no explanation is really needed as to why he calls himself that) and his sins haunt him throughout his running in the form of dreams.  He’s also not afraid to charge money for baptisms which are outlawed.  Being illegal makes them more valuable.

In spite of his many flaws, the priest is portrayed with a good heart.  One of the most tragic scenes in the novel involves the priest attempting to save a boy who had been shot three times in a deserted village.  While he exerts every effort to save the boy, the boy’s mother hovers around him at a distance like an animal unsure of the stranger and whether he is helping or hurting her child.  This passage of a few pages is probably one of the most frightening I’ve read this year and epitomizes the priest’s isolation.

Greene seemlessly ends his grim tale in what I thought was a humorous note.  Even with all of the ambiguity between the beliefs of his two characters, Greene seems to point out that religious faith, for better or worse, is difficult to simply “shoot down”.

William Trevor: The Piano Tuner’s Wives

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William Trevor’s short stories have a mood that blends the happy and the sad – blends them into something beautiful and real.  “The Piano Tuner’s Wives” stands as evidence of this.

William Trevor

Owen, a piano tuner and blind, married Violet forty years ago.  After Violet dies, he marries Belle.  Forty years previously, he had chosen Violet over Belle.  Belle never married after that rejection and based on the story, never seemed to really get over it.  By most standards, Belle was the prettier woman – but Owen was blind and looks didn’t matter.

The story revolves around descriptions of the two marriages and in usual Trevor fashion, major plot devices are not needed to keep the reader interested.  Violet and Owen complimented each other well during their marriage.  Violet managed to become Owen’s eyes giving him more than adequate words for his imagination.  She also became his driver and propelled his piano tuning business to something more than it would have been without her.

Belle, by all indications, as gracious a woman as Violet, has to live in her shadow.  The shadow, though, seems to be cast more by Belle herself than by Violet or by Owen.  Owen gets two different pairs of eyes to help him see – both in some form or fashion influenced by the other.

Bagombo Snuff Box

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Where is Bagombo, anyway?  In Ceylon.  Where is Ceylon?  Africa? India? China?

I couldn’t help but like Eddie Laird.  He not only suckered his ex-wife and her current husband in to believing he was a wealthy world-traveler, but he suckered me into believing it, too.  I really felt like I was sitting in Amy and Harry’s living room. What an impression Eddie made on these two with his small bejeweled gift from his travels!  Looking back on the story, it’s funny how easily impressionable Amy and Harry were in comparing their suburban family life to Eddie’s stories.

Then, of course, their little brat, Stevie, comes in to ruin it all!  How dare a nine year-old enter the room and demand to know where Ceylon is?  Or to question the small tag on Eddie’s gift?  As the reader, the realization of what Eddie’s stories were didn’t dawn on me until Stevie and his parents go get an Atlas while Eddie makes a run for it.

The phone call Eddie makes at the end of the story could have been simply sweet and sentimental, but the air of sadness in it made me like Eddie all the more.  Vintage Kurt Vonnegut!

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Flannery O’Connor: Wise Blood

In Wise Blood, Flannery O’Connor takes the reader on a comically spiritual ride through the wreckage and muck of humanity- throwing in a gorilla suit for good measure.   She holds up a sign for American Christianity that says “Welcome to the Freak Show” – or at least it seems that way on the surface.  I sense she has a deeper meaning buried somewhere underneath everything.  A small introduction by the author in my edition reveals a few clues.

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O’Connor’s protagonist, Hazel Motes, reminds me of something C. S. Lewis wrote in his autobiography, Surprised By Joy.  As a young man, Lewis decided that God did not exist and he promptly became angry at God for not existing.  Motes strikes me as just such an angry young man.  He appoints himself preacher of the Church Without Christ and preaches on the hood of his Essex in front of movie theaters that his church has the better way: forget Jesus.  For Motes, Jesus is a “wragged figure swinging from tree to tree” and while Hazel promotes blasphemy as a better life, he can’t seem to shake the idea that he needs to pay some sort of penance – for something.  Guilt just doesn’t flee that easily.

Various secondary characters wander across Motes’ path.  Enoch Emery consistently proved to be my favorite.  An 18 year-old working at a zoo with a circus-like museum, Enoch chases a few women, drinks a few chocolate malts at a few drugstore counters and has a life change half-way through the novel.  While this change doesn’t get fleshed out in great detail, O’Connor manages to convey enough of Enoch’s change through his endeavor to polish his bed frame until he could see the gold.

Motes’ landlady, Mrs. Flood, enters the scene at the end of the story.  An older woman who eventually takes pity on Motes, in spite of her general lack of compassion, gives a running commentary on Motes.  The kind of commentary the reader has yet to encounter.  Pulling Mrs. Flood out of the blue would have ruined or at least bogged down another story but O’Connor pulls it off brilliantly.

I’m finding that Flannery O’Connor’s stories are almost always funny but almost never fun. I’ll be mulling this novel over in my mind for quite a while.  Did I mention the gorilla suit?

Graham Greene and G. K. Chesterton

What do Graham Greene and G. K. Chesterton have in common?  For starters, they are both British.  They also write with a strong Catholic influence – Greene having a strained relationship with the church but never leaving and Chesterton seeming to fully embrace the church.  They now also have something else in common:  both of them have short story collections that are owned by me.

The first story in the Graham Greene collection, Complete Short Stories, is “The Destructors”.  The story could be considered the flip side to Willa Cather’s great story “The Enchanted Bluff”.  While I would consider the Cather story better, Greene uses a certain unsentimental humor to make “The Destructors” enjoyable and worth reading.

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A car-park gang of boys, ranging in age from nine to about fifteen, put together a plan with the leadership of “T” (short for Trevor, but apparently Trevor wasn’t a cool enough name), a boy new to the neighborhood and a threat to Blackie (that was a cool enough name), the gang’s current leader.  The title gives the reader a clue as to the nature of this plan.  The plan might actually be considered a dream in the nature of the dreams and plans of the boys in “The Enchanted Bluff”; however, this dream eventually comes to fruition.  Is this a good thing?  Well, I’ll just let you read the story and decide for yourself.

The collection of Chesterton stories I have is The Complete Father Brown Stories.  The first one is called “The Blue Cross”.  In the nature of mysteries, these stories have strong similarities to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s more well-known Sherlock Holmes mysteries. This first one is told from the perspective of French detective, Valentinarriving in London chasing his arch nemesis, Flambeau.  As Valentin tracks down the criminal, he expresses thoughts to himself about reason and doubt.  He begins to become suspicious of two priests. Ultimately, through one of the priests, Father Brown, Valentin catches Flambeau.

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I especially enjoyed the parting thoughts Father Brown leaves for both Valentin and Flambeau.  Valentin asks Father Brown how, as a priest, he knows so much about the criminal mind.  Father Brown indicates that years of listening to confessions has made him an expert in human nature – particularly the dark side.  Flambeau, pretending to be a priest in order to steal a valuable ornamental cross, wonders what gave himself away to Father Brown.  At one point in the story, Flambeau (as a priest) talks of God as being above human reason.  Father Brown lets Flambeau know he ought not attack reason – it’s “bad theology” and it was this “bad theology” that gave the criminal away.

I have the feeling that Graham Greene’s stories will utilize the “anti-hero” with a moral ambiguity in his characters.  Chesterton’s Father Brown will likely have a more focused moral compass.  I’m looking forward to reading more of each.

A Crazy Tale by G. K. Chesterton

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I’ve read some of G. K. Chesterton’s non-fiction and found him to be a very quotable author.  I haven’t read as much of his fiction, so I have been looking forward to reading his short story A Crazy Tale”.  It’s rather quotable, too.

G.K. Chesterton

The apocalyptic story is part “Alice in Wonderland” and part “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”. The narrator encounters a stranger who tells him a story that he knows nobody will believe.  As the stranger smokes a cigar, he relays the bizarre, dream-like details of this crazy tale.  In the course of the tale, the stranger meets a lady who becomes his wife and encounters the sense of an innocence more child-like than childish.

In his non-fiction, Chesterton proves he has an incredible mind.  In this story, he proves he has an incredible imagination.  The two probably go hand in hand. His ability to conjure up images with words was well worth the effort put in to reading this work.

And since I said Chesterton is very quotable, here are a few quotes from the story:

So I traveled along a road of portents, like undeciphered parables.  There was no twilight as in a dream; everything was clear-cut in the sunlight, standing out in defiant plainness and infantile absurdity.  All was in simple colours, like the landscape of a child’s alphabet, but to a child who had not learnt the meaning.

And here’s another one:

I am the first that ever saw in the world.  Prophets and sages there have been, out of whose great hearts came schools and churches.  But I am the first that ever saw a dandelion as it is.