Posted in Short Stories

John Cheever: The Five-Forty-Eight (Deal Me In 2017 – Week 1)

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John Cheever has slowly made his way into my circle of authors that I admire. “The Five-Forty-Eight” is only the third story of his that I’ve read. The others are “The Country Husband” and “The National Pastime”. If it wasn’t for writing so well, I might consider his stories tedious. They are full of detail – not just physical detail but extra side characters that with a lesser author would seem out of place. “The Five-Forty-Eight” allows me to include Cheever in that type of author like Alice Munro that can fit into a short story what most authors would have to include in a novel.

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(photo obtained from goodreads.com)

I read this story when I selected the Ace of Diamonds for the very first week of Deal Me In 2017. It’s included in my copy of Wonderful Town: New York Stories from The New Yorker edited by David Remnick. My Deal Me In List can be found here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

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Blake has an extramarital tryst with his new secretary and then fires her. Welcome to the fabulous 50’s! Of course, I’m wrong to imply that the 1950’s somehow cornered the market on chauvinism and this story is not a “that’s just the way it is” story anymore than the television series Mad Men was. It was difficult not to think of Mad Men as I read “The Five-Forty-Eight”. The comparison only becomes greater half way through when the reader realizes that Blake is a last name as Cheever reveals that Blake’s wife is Louise Blake. I find this minor detail fascinating and wonder what purpose Cheever may have had for choosing “Blake” for his protagonist’s name.

As the story proceeds, it becomes one of the best revenge stories I’ve read. Guess who says these chilling quotations?

“Even if I did have to kill you, they wouldn’t be able to do anything to me except put me back in the hospital, so you see I’m not afraid. But let’s sit quietly for a little while longer. I have to be calm.”

“OhI’ve been planning this for weeks. It’s all I’ve had to think about. I won’t harm you if you’ll let me talk. I’ve been thinking about devils. I mean if there are devils in the world, if there are people in the world who represent evil, is it our duty to exterminate them?”

And on a less spine-tingling note, I couldn’t help think about public transportation. The 5:48 in the title is a train out of New York City – a non-express train. While I’ve never lived in a city where public transportation might be considered the norm, I have utilized it. There is nothing better to a reader and book lover (or at least not to this one) than to spend a commute reading while someone else does the driving.

What have you read by John Cheever? And what’s your experience been with public transportation and reading?

Posted in Short Stories

A Year With Mark Twain: The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County

“Well, thish-yer Smiley had a yaller one-eyed cow that didn’t have no tail, only just a short stump like a bannanner, and—”

However, lacking both time and inclination, I did not wait to hear about the afflicted cow, but took my leave.

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I’ve decided to revamp my Annual Featured Author feature (redundant, I know). For the last two years, I’ve read a short story each month by the same author – in 2015 it was Ray Bradbury and in 2016 it was Alice Munro. I’ve never thought the name of the feature sounded right, so I’ve decided to change it to A Year With… and in 2017, it’s going to be A Year With Mark Twain. My ultimate goal is to read the rest of his short stories in 2017.

So I’m starting this off with one of his more famous stories “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”. This is roughly the third time I’ve read this story with the first being somewhere around junior high.

What I didn’t remember from previous readings is that the story of the frog is just one of a number of stories that Simon Wheeler is telling about his acquaintance, persistent gambler Jim Smiley. He’s telling these stories to the unnamed narrator – perhaps a fictional version of Twain, himself – who isn’t really in the mood to hear all of these tall tales.

I also didn’t remember that in Wheeler’s versions of these stories, the various animals for which Smiley is making his bets have names of famous people. A puppy is named Andrew Jackson while the frog from the title is named Dan’l Webster. Something about this enhances the incredibility of the stories – as does the way Twain uses a narrator listening to a narrator telling stories from another narrator. It’s not a surprise to anyone – the fictional Twain or the reader – that these stories might not be true.

Finally, the tall tales make the story funny. I’ve known parents who don’t like their children to read stories in which characters lie. While I fully respect parents teaching morals to their children and I can think of worse things for parents to do than be involved in their children’s reading, lying has been a staple of fictional comedy since – well, probably at least since 1865 when “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” was published.