Posted in Short Stories

Philip F. Deaver: Geneseo


Deal Me In 2020 – Week 31

In the short time he’d known her, a few months, this was what he always noticed – her pallid, almost transparent color. The skin of a woman can make you wonder what you don’t know about her.

In Philip F. Deaver’s short story “Geneseo”, Jerome, the third person narrator takes Janet, his sort-of girlfriend, to a commune in which the story’s title is the name so she can get her 8 year-old daughter. Janet has recently left the commune where her daughter and husband still live.

Ultimately, neither Janet nor the commune are portrayed with a negative light. The fact that Jerome tells the story and he is mostly an innocent bystander contributes to the neutrality that seems central to the story. The reader learns that Janet has a drinking problem and that the commune is getting ready to close – lots of people have left. Nobody is forcing them to stay and nobody attempts to stop Janet from taking her daughter.

While this wasn’t my favorite story, it is the final story from the collection The Best American Catholic Short Stories edited by Daniel McVeigh and Patricia Schnapp from which I’ve read numerous great stories. My three favorites from this collection are:

3. Lions, Harts, Leaping Does by J. F. Powers

2. A Father’s Story by Andre Dubus

1. The Whore’s Child by Richard Russo

Check out my Deal Me In 2020 list here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.


Posted in Fiction

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

At the end of James Baldwin’s novel Giovanni’s Room, David, the white American protagonist/narrator comes to a spiritual conclusion of sorts:

I must believe, I must believe, that the heavy grace of God, which has brought me to this place, is all that can carry me out of it.

From what exactly is David trying to find redemption?

While he lives in Paris, he develops a relationship and moves in with Giovanni, an Italian bartender, while his fiance is away in Spain. He lies to both of them, and perhaps to himself, setting in motion a tragedy that ends with the execution of Giovanni.

One can look at the story line and determine that David wasn’t at fault in the legal sense but the spiritual guilt gnaws at him right up to the novel’s end. There is a part of Giovanni’s death that doesn’t get carried away from David by the wind – neither the winds of change nor the winds of time.

The guilt of a white American plays center stage in this novel pushed to full literary force by Baldwin’s incredible writing:

Perhaps everybody has a garden of Eden, I don’t know; but they have scarcely seen their garden before they see the flaming sword. Then, perhaps, life only offers the choice of remembering the garden or forgetting it. Either,or: it takes strength to remember, it takes another kind of strength to forget, it takes a hero to do both. People who remember court madness through pain, the pain of the perpetually recurring death of their innocence; people who forget court another kind of madness, the madness of the denial of pain and hatred of innocence; and the world is mostly divided between madmen who remember and madmen who forget. Heroes are rare.

Maybe Baldwin, himself, is one of these heroes.

Posted in Short Stories

Robert Hazel: White Anglo-Saxon Protestant

Deal Me In 2020 – Week 30

While Robert Hazel’s short story “White Anglo-Saxon Protestant” was published in 1967 and is set during the Kennedy presidency close to sixty years ago, it seems as though it could very well have been set in 2020.

The story feels divided into two parts that don’t connect well but other than that, the story packs a powerful punch. Richard, the narrator, teaches poetry and literature in New York City. He occasionally mentions that he grew up in Kentucky but that’s the extent to which Kentucky is mentioned in this story. The dividing part of the story is the stabbing death of Richard’s friend, Hampden. The first part of the story is character driven in which the reader is introduced to Hampden’s bigoted worldview while also understanding that Richard isn’t of the same mindset as his friend in spite of the story’s title being an accurate description of both men.

After Hampden’s death, Richard walks around the New York City streets pondering the world he lives in. His thoughts and descriptions play out to the final paragraph:

I try to imagine a time of love and goodness. I try to imagine God, or at least imagine a time when God may have lived. There is always a feeling that a human being ought to be more than a brick with an obscene word scraped into its face in an old wall. That man ought not be in despair, alone, to die in the street, as Hampden did, or die standing up, listening to music, as I do now.

This story is included in Home and Beyond: An Anthology of Kentucky Short Stories edited by Morris Allen Grubbs. I read it when I selected the Nine of Diamonds for Week 30 of my Deal Me In 2020 short story project. Check out my Deal Me In 2020 list here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Posted in Fiction

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

dutch house

I was still at a point in my life when the house was the hero of every story, our lost and beloved country.

The plot-driven but subtle story of Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House gets pulled along not just by Danny Conroy, the narrator, and his older sister Maeve but by a wealth of supporting characters that are just as intriguing even if they don’t get the page time that the brother and sister do.

Over the course of several generations, those before Danny and Maeve and those after, the novel offers a kind of rags to riches to rags to riches story. I’m not aware of many stories in which a brother and sister relationship takes center stage the way it does in this one. And its Danny and Maeve who go from riches to rages to riches in one generation even if their lawyer tells them it takes three generations for all that to happen.

You can’t really talk about the novel without at least mentioning the house. It’s the title of the book after all. For those who find the idea of a physical location as a character to be a little cliche, I understand; however, I wouldn’t say the house is treated as a character. It’s simply the catalyst that moves the story along. For some characters, it’s the love of their lives, for others it means loss and longing, and for at least one character, it represents everything they despise. And, yes, as with most good novels, the characters’ feelings can change and evolve and the house serves to provide this also.


Posted in Fiction

Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter

She slipped down in the chair and leaned against the dusty plush, closed her eyes and faced for one instant that was a lifetime the certain, the overwhelming and awful knowledge that there was nothing at all ahead for Adam and her. Nothing. She opened her eyes and held her hands together palms up, gazing at them and trying to understand oblivion.

According to wikipedia, Katherine Anne Porter did not like the term “novella” applied to Pale Horse, Pale Rider. She preferred the term “short novel”. At 48 pages, I’m more than willing to acknowledge the author’s preference and shamelessly count it as an entire book when counting the number of books I’ve read.

It’s 1918 and Adam and Miranda are in love – both in the emotional romantic sense and in the “for better or worse, in sickness and in health” sense. The story’s backdrop is World War I and the Spanish Influenza epidemic. As readers we don’t root for Adam and Miranda’s love because it’s already there. We root for their survival.

Pale Horse, Pale Rider was published at the outset of World War II in 1939 but that post World War I American disillusionment shines bright.


Posted in Short Stories

F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Swimmers

Deal Me In 2020 – Week 29

France was a land, England was a people, but America, having about it still the quality of the idea, was harder to utter – it was the graves at Shiloh and the tired, drawn, nervous faces of its great men, and the country boys dying in the Argonne for a phrase that was empty before their bodies withered. It was a willingness of the heart.

I’ll go out on a limb and call Henry Marston a good guy and in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story “The Swimmers”, I’ll go out on another limb and say that the good guy, or Henry Marston, wins.

All this “going out on a limb” stuff is because so many of Fitzgerald’s stories contain so many morally ambiguous characters that Henry seems to be a breath of fresh air. I was surprised how pleasant it was for a good guy to get what’s due him.

I’ve said many times before that not all stories have to have surprises and not all plots have to have twists. Even if the reader can see what’s coming a mile away, that mile can be glorious in the hands of a great story teller – like Fitzgerald. And when that last mile involves swimming, its even better.

As the final paragraph quoted above explains, there is a contrast in this story between Europe and America and its in this contrast that we can still have ambiguity. Fitzgerald gives both continents faults and flaws. Europe’s sophistication isn’t always that sophisticated and America’s money-grabbing, power-hungry landscape never gives it the moral high road. But I had to hand it to Henry as he maneuvered between both continents with such style – especially free-style.

This story is included in The Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli. I read it when I selected the Eight of Hearts for Week 29 of my Deal Me In 2020 short story project. Check out my Deal Me In 2020 list here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.



Posted in Short Stories

Nathaniel Hawthorne: Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment

Deal Me In 2020 – Week 28

When the doctor’s four guests heard him talk of his proposed experiment, they anticipated nothing more wonderful than the murder of a mouse in an air pump, or the examination of a cobweb by the microscope, or some similar nonsense, with which he was constantly in the habit of pestering his intimates.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment” is a fable that explains why people in their twilight years retire to Florida. Well, OK, not really in the modern sense of this concept but maybe in an 1837 sort of way.

Dr. Heidegger gets four of his friends (three male and one female) who are getting up there in age to drink small amounts of water from the Fountain of Youth (most likely located in Florida). These friends’ passions begin to reignite the more they drink and the three men begin fighting over the one woman.

The humorous aspect of this story is the contrast between Dr. Heidegger’s detached observation and the four emotional perspectives of his subjects. As the magic water wears off, the doctor decides he doesn’t want anything to do with this potion. His four subjects run off to Florida to find more.

This story is included in The Celestial Railroad and Other Stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I read it when I selected the Ace of Hearts for Week 28 of my Deal Me In 2020 short story project. Check out my Deal Me In 2020 list here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Posted in Fiction

William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!


Maybe he knew then that whatever the old man had done,whether he meant well or ill by it, it wasn’t going to be the old man who would have to pay the check; and now that the old man was bankrupt with the incompetence of age, who should do the paying if not his sons, his get, because wasn’t it done that way in the old days? the old Abraham full of years and weak and incapable now of further harm, caught at last and the captains and the collectors saying, ‘Old man, we don’t want you’ and Abraham would say, ‘Praise the Lord, I have raised about me sons to bear the burden of mine iniquities…’

As with the other William Faulkner novels I’ve read this year, there is so much in Absalom, Absalom! that I don’t have the time to cover everything but I’ll post about a few of the things that jumped out at me. And also again, my ability to suspend my need for certainty became an asset to me while reading this novel.

The novel itself is the story of Thomas Sutpen whose life spans most of the 19th century and who seeks and builds his fortune in Faulkner’s fictional Jefferson, Mississippi. Most of what I’ve read about this novel indicates that Sutpen’s life is an allegory for the rise and fall of the South during the 1800’s. I don’t know if allegory is the right word but Sutpen’s life definitely coincides with the historical South before, after and during the American Civil War.

From the outset, the way this story is told proves unusual and fascinating. Quentin Compson, the middle son of the Compson family from The Sound and The Fury (and other Faulkner stories) is the point of contact for the entire story in spite of the fact that it is easy to forget he’s there. Parts of the story are narrated by various characters as they tell their part of the story to Quentin. A significant portion is told to Quentin by his father who is basing his information on what was told to him by his father (Quentin’s grandfather) who was at least an acquaintance of Sutpen. In another section, we have Quentin’s Harvard roommate “repeating” the story to Quentin in the form of very long questions as if he is making sure he’s heard it correctly. The idea that history is handed down from generation to generation is illustrated beautifully here and the fact that the narrators are not 100% reliable gives an even more realistic notion to the idea of learning history as more detective work than scholarly study although I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive.

The title of the novel is an allusion from the Old Testament in which King David cries out at the death of his son Absalom who had spent his adult life attempting to overthrow and usurp the power of his father. This Biblical narrative often is used to illustrate the idea that the sins of the father are cast down to the next generations and this plays into the themes of Sutpen’s story and the Southern United States.  This cry out can be interpreted in many different ways even at the same time. My own opinion is that the cry out is one for an ideal or way of life that is more important than survival. Sutpen and the South would rather see themselves destroyed than change their culture and attitudes.

A story about the American Civil War wouldn’t be considered accurate without including the institution of slavery and the racism that comes with it.  As Sutpen is determining who should marry his daughter, Judith, incest is considered a better option than someone who potentially has mixed blood (even as little as one sixteenth). This is in spite of the fact that Sutpen himself has illegitimate children of mixed race who while may be minor characters, collectively, are written more sympathetically by Faulkner than Sutpen’s legitimate family.

The power in the novel comes with the concept of the generational passing of sins. The sins of the father(s) will be paid for in some form or fashion by the sons or the next generations. And Faulkner doesn’t seem to think that payment will necessarily be an easy one.

The novel ends with a reminder that Quentin Compson is still here in the present (1909) and his realization of Sutpen’s story may or may not hinder his reconciliation to his “Southerness” and while this is not the final line of the novel and it may incorporate more characters than just Quentin, it seems to fit his state of mind:

…he bettered choosing who created in his own image, the cold Cerberus of his private hell.


Posted in Short Stories

Kim Edwards: The Way It Felt To Be Falling

Deal Me In 2020 – Week 27

All summer I had felt myself slipping in the quick rush of the world, but here, in clear and steady descent, nothing seemed to move…the only sound was the whisper of my parachute.

If for no other reason, Kim Edwards’ short story “The Way It Felt To Be Falling” is worth reading because it describes, in first person, a first sky-diving experience. One reason I love to read fiction is that I can come close to experiencing things that I never actually will in real life – and I’m fairly certain I won’t be experiencing sky diving in real life and I can’t think of any other story I’ve read that includes this type of narration of this activity.

Of course there are other reasons to read this story, too. One is the juxtaposition of Kate’s sky-diving event against her world in which her father has slipped into severe mental illness, her mother is trying to hold herself (and Kate) together while decorating wedding cakes, and her relationship with Stephen is less than healthy. In some respects, Stephen cheats on her but it’s not in the manner one might think.

A paragraph about Kate’s father’s illness matches beautifully with her later description of sky-diving:

He did not speak, then or later, not even when the ambulance came and took him away. He did not sigh or protest. He had slid away from us with apparent ease. I had watched him go, and this was what I knew: madness was a graceless descent, the abyss beneath a careless step.

I’m so happy to have read this story – another great one in Home and Beyond: An Anthology of Kentucky Short Stories edited by Morris Allen Grubbs. I read it when I selected the Nine of Clubs for Week 27 of my Deal Me In 2020 short story project. Check out my Deal Me In 2020 list here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.