Mark Twain’s “The Trials of Simon Erickson”

He could not think of the turnip without emotion; he could not speak of it calmly; he could not contemplate it without exaltation; he could not eat it without shedding tears.

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For whatever reason, a turnip is a very funny vegetable. It’s not the first time that they show up in a story by Mark Twain. In “The Trials of Simon Erickson”, another story within a story, Simon Erickson attempts to help a young man in Michigan who is obsessed with turnips – specifically getting turnips to grow on a vine. The young man is so obsessed that his health starts to deteriorate.

The trials, as well as the humor, ensue when Erickson corresponds with an apparent turnip expert; however, the response he gets is in less than perfect handwriting. He interprets and misinterprets the writing to the point that he mistakes the verbage as offensive. According to Erickson, who is potentially telling this story years later, this minor misunderstanding starts wars in Italy.

While today, letter writing and handwriting seem to be a thing of the past, I’m sure Twain could get lots of humor out of text abbreviations and auto correction.

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Jarrid Deaton: Gravity (Deal Me In 2017 – Week 13)

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When I think about it, I realize that Dad and the Mayor could have been big buddies before the Mayor’s great planet of hubris and masculinity caught my mother in its gravitational pull and jerked her out of our orbit.

Jarrid Deaton’s short story “Gravity” combines two story types that I don’t think I’ve seen together before. It’s a coming of age story as well as a revenge story – and the combination is brilliant.

Devon tells his story as well as the story of his Mom, his Dad and the Mayor of Given, Kentucky. We get Devon when he was three, six, eleven, eighteen and on into adulthood. The Mayor is there the whole time destroying his parents’ marriage and planting a larger seed of bitterness in Devon’s Dad and ultimately Devon, himself.

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This is one of those stories in which I have a tough time deciding what quotation to use. Each sentence rings with humor and sarcasm as well as ringing true. I admit the revenge aspect doesn’t play out as I thought it might but I think the title, while showing up in the quotation I used above, might actually stand for natural consequences as opposed to taking matters into one’s own hands.

I read this story when I selected the Four of Spades for Week 13 of my Deal Me In 2017 short story project. It 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.

 

A Hobbit, A Wardrobe and A Great War

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” ‘ The Inklings have already agreed that their victory celebration, if they are spared to have one, will be to take a whole inn in the country for at least a week, and spend it enitrely in beer and talk, without any reference to a clock!'”  – from a letter by J. R. R. Tolkien as quoted by Joseph Loconte.

Joseph Loconte’s short volume A Hobbit, A Wardrobe and A Great War: How J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-1918  focuses on what influenced Tolkien, Lewis and their writings during the wake of the First World War. In addition, Loconte delves into why the works of these two authors may have differed in theme and tone from many of the other authors of the time. While everyone seemed to suffer from the disillusionment caused by The Great War, Tolkien and Lewis maintained a persistent hope while their contemporaries (such as Ernest Hemingway) may not have.

The influence that resonated with me the most was the friendship itself between the two writers. More detailed biographies that I’ve read don’t hide the fact that the friendship had its share of bumps and strains. Loconte’s book doesn’t dismiss this fact but it emphasizes the lasting aspect of the relationship.

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When it comes to the writings of Lewis and Tolkien or the writings of some of my favorite “Lost Generation” writers, I’m not going to pick which ones I like better. All of them have had their impact on me. If I had the opportunity to go back in time to 1920’s Paris to hang out with Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald like Owen Wilson did in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, of course I would jump at the chance. But if I had to choose between which group of authors I would want to hang out with over the course of thirty or forty years, I think I would choose Tolkien, Lewis and their crowd.

 

Mark Twain’s “A Trial”

Capt. Ned Blakely – that name will answer as well as any other fictitious one (for he was still with the living at last accounts, and may not desire to be famous) – sailed ships out of the harbor of San Francisco for many years.

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In reading through Mark Twain’s short stories, I knew I would eventually have to grapple with material that would be considered offensive by today’s standards and his story “The Trial” contains just such material.

But it’s difficult to say whether the overarching story in theme is offensive or just the racial slurs used.

Bill Noakes, the nemisis of Captain Ned Blakely, kills a favorite African shipmate of Blakely’s. Noakes is seen doing the killing by numerous witnesses so when Blakely goes to hang Noakes, he is taken by surprise when everyone insists on a “fair” trial.

The setup seems to move the story toward a trial where Noakes is found innocent in spite of his obvious crime. But, no, that’s not what happens. He’s found guilty and he’s hanged.

If there is humor in this story, it went over my head – or perhaps its simply not as timeless as much of Twain’s humor is. Would the ending have been a surprise to Twain’s readers in 1872? Would Twain’s 1872 readers have found something funny in this story? Or did Mark Twain just decide that some of his stories didn’t need to be funny?

 

Donald Barthelme: The Balloon (Deal Me In 2017 – Week 12)

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…there were no situations, simply the balloon hanging there – muted grays and browns for the most part, constrasting with walnut and soft yellows.

Meaning takes on a whole new meaning in Donald Barthelme’s 1966 story “The Balloon”. As a giant balloon inflates over a significant part of New York City, much discussion ensues over what it means by the narrator. Is the narrator the one responsible for the balloon? Possibly? What is the balloon? The narrator acknowledges these as logical questions, but of course there are no real answers – just descriptions of how the balloon influences New York City life – and it doesn’t influence life nearly as much as one might think.

As the quotation above implies, in many ways, this is more like a painting than a story until we get to the final paragraph. That’s where a semblance of meaning, of purpose, of plot begins – just as the story ends.

As unusual as Barthelme’s story is, it is easily in the top three stories I’ve read so far for Deal Me In 2017 and I can see it making its way to the top ten at the end of the year. I highly recommend it!

I read “The Balloon” when I selected the Nine of Diamonds for Week 12 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.

 

Mark Twain’s “Tom Quartz”

Whenever he was out of luck and a little downhearted, he would fall to mourning over the loss of a wonderful cat…

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“Tom Quartz” is another of Mark Twain’s stories that is actually a story within a story. It reminds me a little of “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” because of the way the story is told in dialect and accent. The story involves a cat, dynamite and miners who only half know what they are doing.

The Looney Tunes antics that ensue are funny only because nobody (or no animal) truly gets hurt. I know that the quotation I’ve used above may imply otherwise – but the cat isn’t really harmed. I mean, he’s able to walk away.

 

Mark Twain’s “The Story of the Old Ram”

I never so pined to see a man uncompromisingly drunk before.

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Mark Twain’s “The Story of the Old Ram” doesn’t have an old ram in it.

It does have cannibals that are converted after eating their missionaries, a dead man rising up at his funeral to tell his mortician that he doesn’t want this coffin but would rather have another one, and a man killed at a carpet factory after which his widow weaves his remains into the piece of carpet that killed him.

But no, it doesn’t have an old ram in it.