John O’Hara: Drawing Room B (Deal Me In 2017 – Week 9)

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Nobody big had taken Leda Pentleigh to the train, and the young man from the publicity department who had taken her was not authorized to hire the Rolls or Packard that used to be provided for her New York visits.

John O’Hara’s short story “Drawing Room B” consists of a train ride from New York City to California for actress Leda Pentleigh. I hesitate to call Leda an aging actress because, unfortunately, my guess is that she is not that old. However, the fame that she once had has begun to fade.

The first half of the story involves Leda going over in her mind the disappointing happenings during her visit to New York City. During the second half of the story, Leda converses with an up and coming actor who is also on the train – an actor that understands Leda isn’t the Hollywood star she used to be.

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O’Hara paints Leda as a real person with real feelings who understands the ups and downs of a Hollywood career, someone who isn’t surprised at what is happening but is stunned by it nevertheless. She doesn’t become an out-of-touch caricature of herself who thinks the masses still love her – at least not yet.

One of the reasons I love to read is that I get to go to places I’ll never go or get to know people I’ll never know. Usually, I end up discovering something universal that I didn’t realize before. While “Drawing Room B” is a well-told story, I couldn’t find much in common with Leda. I suppose we all grow old and occasionally feel we aren’t what we used to be, but I’ve yet to have that bother me the way it bothers Leda.

“Drawing Room B” is included in my copy of Wonderful Town: New York Stories from the New Yorker edited by David Remnick. I read it this week when I selected the Jack of Diamonds for Week 9 of my Deal Me In 2017 short story project. My Deal Me In List can be found here. Deal Me In is hosted byJay at Bibliophilopolis.

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Mark Twain’s “Buck Fanshaw’s Funeral”

“Now we’re alright, pard. Let’s start fresh. Don’t you mind my snuffling a little – becuz we’re in a power of trouble. You see, one of the boys has gone up the flume-“

“Gone where?”

“Up the flume – throwed up the sponge, you understand.”

“Thrown up the sponge?”

“Yes- kicked the bucket-“

“Ah-has departed to that mysterious country from whose bourne no traveler returns.”

“Return! I reckon not. Why, pard, he’s dead!”

“Yes, I understand.”

“Oh, you do? Well I thought maybe you might be getting tangled some more. Yes, you see he’s dead again-“

“Again! Why, has he ever been dead before?”

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“Buck Fanshaw’s Funeral” really isn’t about Buck Fanshaw. His funeral is simply a way for Scotty Briggs to talk to a minister to ask him to perform the funeral service.

Scotty Briggs is a miner from the West Coast while the minister is from the East Coast. The minister also is more educated than Scotty. The conversation that ensues becomes something of a “who’s on first” routine as Scotty attempts to ask the minister to officiate using lower class slang and poker analogies. Not understanding, the minister responds with long-winded remarks containing large theological words and concepts – which of course sounds foreign to Scotty.

I loved the fact that the reader gets to hear both men and is able to find both of them funny. Twain doesn’t seem to be taking sides between West and East or between lower class and upper class. The path to understanding is hilarious from both points of view.

Mark Twain’s “The Story of the Good Little Boy”

Once there was a good little boy by the name of Jacob Blivens. He always obeyed his parents, no matter how absurd and unreasonable their demands were; and he always learned his book, and never was late at Sabbath-school. He would not play hookey, even when his sober judgment told him it was the most profitable thing he could do.

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A few posts ago, I read Mark Twain’s story “The Story of the Bad Little Boy” where the consequences of a bad boy’s behavior didn’t turn out the way they did in the Sunday School books of the day – he simply grew up to be a congressman.

Now we have the flip side of that story “The Story of the Good Little Boy” in which Jacob Blivens goes to great lengths to be good but things don’t work out the way he thought they would – according to the Sunday School books.

For some reason, this story is a little funnier than the first one. Something about the way the other boys find Jacob “afflicted” made me laugh more.

Even though some of the “rules” Jacob follows are not necessarily common today (like not playing marbles on Sunday), the humor and satire keep the story timeless.

As I read through Twain’s stories, I continually find myself realizing that he would have just as much to make fun of today as he did 150 years ago. Maybe more!

The Sun Also Rises

“Oh, Jake,” Brett said, “we could have had such a damned good time together.”

“Yes.” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

After reading Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises for the third time, I found that the ending still gets me. When it comes to romance, I’m a sucker for ambiguous less-than-happy endings. The unrequited passion between Jake Barnes and Lady Brett Ashley encompasses all of the post-World War I disillusionment of the 1920’s – the war being the reason they are not together.

Reading it this time around, I was well aware of the personal nostalgia I feel for the novel. I read the novel when I was a sophomore in high school and while it was not the first Hemingway novel I read (that would be For Whom The Bell Tolls which I read the summer before tenth grade), it was the one that made me a solid fan of his writing. Up until tenth grade, I was mostly a science fiction and fantasy reader (not that there’s anything wrong with that!) but reading Hemingway, and The Sun Also Rises specifically, was the first time I realized there could be something more than plot that intrigues me about a novel – such as simply how the author puts words together or what they say or don’t say.

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As well as noticing what I have always liked about the novel, certain things jumped out at me as “new”. In my previous readings, I didn’t realize how much humor Bill Gorton provides with his joking and sarcasm. His every line is a good chuckle. And then I stumble on this little lecture given by Bill to Jake. I didn’t remember it, either:

“You’re an expatriate. You’ve lost touch with the soil. You get precious. Fake European standards have ruined you. You drink yourself to death. You become obessed by sex. You spend all your time talking, not working. You are an expatriate, see? You hang around cafes.”

At the time of writing this, perhaps Hemingway didn’t include himself in the group of expatriates with whom he would become associated? Perhaps he found reason to criticize them with this little jab? Close to a century later, though, it’s almost as though he is lecturing himself through Bill Gorton – a small example of life imitating art.

I was prompted to read The Sun Also Rises again in preparation for reading Lesley M. M. Blume’s recent book Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Look for another post about it sometime in the near future.

 

Vladimir Nabokov: Symbols and Signs (Deal Me In 2017 – Week 8)

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She thought of the recurrent waves of pain that for some reason or other she and her husband had had to endure; of the invisible giants hurting her boy in some unimaginable fashion; of the incalculable amount of tenderness contained in the world; of the fate of this tenderness, which is either crushed or wasted, or transformed into madness; of neglected children humming to themselves in unswept corners; of beautiful weeds that cannot hide from the farmer.

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(photograph obtained from goodreads.com)

I first became familiar with Vladimir Nabokov in the early 1980’s when The Police referred to him and his infamously banned novel Lolita in their song “Don’t Stand So Close To Me”:

He starts to shake and cough
Just like the old man in
That book by Nabokov

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(photograph obtained from google images)

Later in the 80’s (or, who knows, it may have been the 90’s by then), I actually read Lolita and while, yes, I found it disturbing, I also became fascinated by the way Nabokov put words together – so I had to finish it.

Now all these decades later, I have finally arrived at another of Nabokov’s work-his short story “Symbols and Signs” and I find that his way with words didn’t begin or end with Lolita. I also find that if one wants to recommend Nabokov but might be leery of recommending Lolita go for “Symbols and Signs”. It’s much tamer but still a great story.

In short, “Symbols and Signs” tells of an elderly Russian couple living in New York City who has a son with a mental illness in a nearby sanitarium. As the reader, we don’t know many specifics of the son’s illness. We also get no resolution at the story’s end.

What we do get is a portrait of a long-married couple who has had their share of problems perhaps both in Russia and in New York. The care taken by the parents in selecting the right birthday present for their son displays their dedication. At the same time, it shows the reliance they have on each other.

It seems the couple has gained strength from adversity as opposed to letting it tear them apart. Though not plot driven, Nabokov beautifully shows the reader an example of survival.

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I read “Symbols and Signs” when I selected the Three of Diamonds for Week 8 of my Deal Me In 2017 short story project. 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 byJay at Bibliophilopolis.

Have you read anything by Vladimir Nabokov? What would you recommend?

Mark Twain’s “Science vs. Luck”

He brought in a cloud of witnesses, and produced an overwhelming mass of testimony, to show that old sledge was not a game of chance but a game of science.

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While I’m not much of a gambler, I live only miles from a major river with numerous casinos and in a state that has horse racing as one of its top industries. I do own some stock and I’ve never known exactly why that isn’t considered gambling. But my point is that the world I live in doesn’t see gambling as a moral issue, but in another of Mark Twain’s very short stories “Science vs. Luck”, this isn’t the case. In fact, a group of friends are taken to court for playing “games of chance”. Their lawyer, Jim Sturgis, figures out a way to get them off the hook by convincing a jury that these games are more science than luck – as the title implies.

A number of the jurors are what one might call the pillars of the church in this community. The setup of this story was very good. The potential for poking fun at the morals of the day with all of the irreverence that I expect from Mark Twain is very high. But the punchline? It was an intelligent punchline – just not as funny as I thought it would be.

Mark Powell: The Beauties of This Earth (Deal Me In 2017 – Week 7)

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“Every time I drink this I start to cry,” the old man said. “Thinking about the beauties of this earth.”

“The wonders,” Walt said.

The old man took a long swallow. “The goddamn wonders, indeed.”

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Mark Powell’s short story “The Beauties of This Earth” begins with Walt coming home during the “spring after the war”. I admit this phrase threw me for a loop because it sounds like a war that is finished. Powell published the story in 2007 and the time frame seems to be the present. The plot reveals that Walt had been in the middle east during the war. Maybe I’m making too big of a deal about something so small, it’s just that the wars during the last decades don’t really seem to be over. Perhaps it just means that Walt is finished with the war.

I’ll move on.

Walt comes home to a father grieving over the death of his mother (Walt’s grandmother) and an almost ex-wife who won’t let him see his son. In the background of all this is a crime Walt commited (or is at least accused of) during the war, a crime of inaction. I say this crime is in the background because it is only described briefly in a few paragraphs in the middle of the story. What I find amazing is Powell’s ability to keep this in the background but by doing so bring it to the foreground with the rest of the plot.

Overall, it’s a sad story that I enjoyed; however, Walt’s interaction with his father tugged at my emotions more than the relationship with his ex-wife or his inability to see his son. The above quotation that ends the story provides an example.

This is the first time I’ve read any of Mark Powell’s work but he has several novels. At first glance, his novel The Sheltering looks quite good – with a foreward by the late Pat Conroy. I’ll think I’ll have to check it out soon.

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I read this story when I selected the Seven of Spades for Week 7 of my Deal Me In 2017 short story project. “The Beauties of This Earth” is included in my copy of Degrees of Elevation: Short Stories of Contemporary Appalachia edited by Charles Dodd White and Page Seay. My Deal Me In List can be found here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.