William Melvin Kelley: Carlyle Tries Polygamy (Deal Me In 2018 – Week 35)

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Wonderful Town

“I just wanted to see if we all couldn’t maybe find a way to get along,” Carlyle said simply.

Carlyle’s above understated request exemplifies the tone of much of William Melvin Kelley’s “Carlyle Tries Polygamy” giving it a humorous edge even though things don’t exactly work out for Carlyle Bedlow the way he might want.

At the same time, it doesn’t necessarily work out as bad as it could have juggling relationships with two different women. When the women meet, they end up getting along.

But the funniest parts of the story come in the form of the occasional paragraph in which the reader gets the thoughts of both women at the same time. Kelley uses a trick of alternating sentences within the paragraph with different accents and dialects to represent each woman: the brash and bawdy Glora and the Rastafarian Senagale.

The humor makes it enjoyable to read. But while I don’t think the story is a favorite, I would be interested in reading more of Kelley’s work.

I read this story when I selected the Five of Hearts for Week 35 of my Deal Me In 2018 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 by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Donald Barthelme: The School (Deal Me In 2018 – Week 34)

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Of course we expected the tropical fish to die, that was no surprise. Those numbers, you look at them crooked and they’re belly-up on the surface. But the lesson plan called for a tropical-fish input at that point, there was nothing we could do, it happens every year, you just have to hurry past it.

It’s surreal. It’s funny. It’s dark. It’s short. It’s Donald Barthelme’s short story “The School”. Last year, his story “The Balloon” took the spot as my favorite story. I don’t know if this one will take that spot this year, but it’s one that I’m sure will make my top ten. It also could easily be the most hilarious story I’ve read this year.

oxford short stories

We get a snippet of Edgar’s life as an elementary school teacher in which death confronts him every time he turns around. Things become a little intense as the story hits its third and final page. Most of the humor comes from Edgar’s casual and naive attitude as the kids ask pointed and philosophical questions about both life and death – but mostly death.

Then the kids move on to a different topic in the final paragraphs, but I’ll let readers get the enjoyment out of discovering that topic for themselves.

This story is included in my copy of The Oxford Book of American Short Stories edited by Joyce Carol Oates. I read it when I selected the Eight of Spades for Week 34 of my Deal Me In 2018 short story project. My Deal Me In list can be found here. Deal Me In is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

 

Wendell Berry: A Half-Pint of Old Darling (Deal Me In 2018 – Week 33)

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Distant Land

The radiance within her had begun to gleam also in a sort of nimbus around her. If the devil made sin attractive, then she would have to admit that he had done a splendid job with Old Darling.

It’s 1920 in small town Kentucky and Tol Proudfoot and his wife Miss Minnie contemplate the topical politics of their time which consist mainly of prohibition and women getting “the vote”.

Miss Minnie, whom Tol considers smarter than himself, is against drinking alcohol and in favor of women getting “the vote”. In a series of comical twists, Tol hides a pint of whiskey that Miss Minnie finds. Miss Minnie ends up sacrificing her scruples and knowingly drinking it so as not to further her husband down the road of sin. Yes, she’s considered the smarter one but that’s part of the story’s fun. And of course the effect of the Old Darling on Miss Minnie is hilarious, too.

This story is included in my copy of Wendell Berry’s collection That Distant Land. I read it when I selected the Nine of Diamonds for Week 33 of my Deal Me In 2018 short story project. My Deal Me In list can be found here. Deal Me In is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

J. F. Powers: Lions, Harts, Leaping Does (Deal Me In 2018 – Week 32)

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He suffered the piercing white voice of the Apocalypse to echo in his soul: But because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will begin to vomit thee out of my mouth. And St. Bernard, fiery-eyed in a white habit, thundered at him from the twelfth century:”Hell is paved with the bald pates of priests!”

A few weeks ago I read Paul Horgan’s story “The Devil in the Desert” about a dying priest and a rattlesnake. This week I read J. F. Powers short story “Lions, Harts, Leaping Does” about a dying priest and a canary. As far as stories go, the canary wins hands down!

powers

Powers puts the precise amount of cynicism into Father Didymus to keep the story from being soft and sentimental but yet still tug at our heart strings.  The rambling thoughts of  the dying Didymus along with his short conversations with Father Titus, a priest with more going for him than meets the eye, parallel the flitting canary in a cage provided by Titus. Powers makes the canary into one of my favorite non-human, non-speaking characters:

So far as he was able to detect the moods of the canary he participated in them. In the morning the canary, bright and clownish, flitted back and forth between the two perches in the cage, hanging from the sides and cocking its little tufted head at Didymus querulously.

The canary gives both a humor and a sadness to the wrestlings of Didymus over his past failures and his attempts to reconcile himself to his life as he heads toward the end of it. I think this story has broken into my top ten favorites for the year.

In Powers’ classic story “Death of a Favorite”, he also uses an animal, this time a cat, to tell the story of two priests with less than noble intentions.  He has a way with animals.

“Lions, Harts, Leaping Does” is included in my copy of The Best American Catholic Short Stories edited by Daniel McVeigh and Patricia Schnapp. I read it when I selected the Ace of Diamonds for Week 32 of my Deal Me In 2018 short story project. My Deal Me In list can be found here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

The Gift of Asher Lev

Master of the Universe, how You run Your world. To me You give this gift so I cannot live without the scents in which the gift finds life; to Rocheleh You give a curse so she cannot go anywhere near those scents. If there is wisdom here, it escapes me. Unless You wish to show irrevocably that the gift is mine alone; that there is no future for it in my family; that it begins and ends with Asher Lev. Is that it? Asher Lev, artist. Asher Lev, troubler. Asher Lev, dead end.

In Chaim Potok’s The Gift of Asher Lev, Asher has a few conversations with the Master of the Universe. I say conversations but Asher is the only one doing the talking or at least the thinking to himself. In this sequel to the novel  My Name is Asher LevAsher is now 45, married with two children, and living in France still in exile from his Ladover Hasidic community in Brooklyn.

Gift

He still lives in conflict with his faith and his art while continuing to uphold both. As twenty years have passed, it’s now obvious that this tension won’t go away and this knowledge gives Asher a kind of melancholy strength as he deals with situations that bring his family back to Brooklyn.

After reading both novels back to back (second time for both), the endings for both stand out for their lack of resolution. The reader gets the idea that Asher will be living with this unresolved tension for the rest of his life.

The plot of this novel slowly and thoughtfully proceeds to a major decision for Asher and his family; however, much of the novel consists of the thoughts that go through Asher’s mind as he edges closer and closer to what could be considered inevitable. Some of those thoughts come out as prayers to the Master of the Universe. Most of these prayers are anything but pious. As the brutal honesty in Asher’s art causes much of his conflict, that same honesty finds its way into Asher’s inward heart and prayers.

 

Benjamin Rosenblatt: Zelig (Deal Me In 2018 – Week 31)

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“The old one is a barrel with a stave missing,” knowingly declared his neighbors. “He never spends a cent; and he belongs nowheres.” For “to belong,” on New York’s East Side, is of no slight importance.

With Benjamin Rosenblatt’s “Zelig” comes another immigrant’s story. Zelig is an old man in Russia when his son sends word from New York that he is sick. Zelig saves money so that he and his wife can move to New York to be with their son and grandson. New York isn’t exactly Zelig’s ideal place to live – it’s not home. So he begins saving money to go back to Russia.

short stories century

The story is short and to the point and told in a manner that could be considered a fable. It at least seems like a fable, now. Perhaps it wasn’t when published in 1915. It’s not a happy fable in that Zelig’s way of life is completely shattered. His attempts to save money are usurped by this new world and its customs. The story also contains a “lack of belonging” theme that many immigrant stories have. To top it all off, Zelig is old – something not very acceptable to this new world.

“Zelig” is the first story chronologically speaking in The Best Short Stories of the Century edited by John Updike. I read it when I selected the Ten of Clubs for Week 31 of my Deal Me In 2018 short story project. My Deal Me In List can be found here. Deal Me In is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.