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He transferred the Camels from his overcoat to a jacket pocket. He wondered, as he did so, if they did not represent an unnecessary note of strain. Mrs. Barrow smoked only Luckies. It was his idea to puff a few puffs on a Camel (after the rubbing out), stub it out in the ashtray holding her lipstick-stained Luckies, and thus drag a small red herring across the trail. Perhaps it was not a good idea. It would take time. He might even choke, too loudly.
In typical farcical fashion, James Thurber’s “The Catbird Seat” tells the story of mild-mannered office worker Mr. Martin and his plot to kill his boss. It might be problematic by today’s standards that his boss happens to be a woman. Of course, it could have been problematic in 1942 when the story was published. But at the same time, this is humor, dark humor, but still humor. Through the years and decades, I doubt there have been too many humorists and comedians that have been completely inoffensive.
I would also make a case that the humor in the story does not come from the fact that the boss is female. The funny aspect comes from the idea that mild, tame, milk-drinking Mr. Martin would plan to kill anyone.
And I suppose I need to call SPOILERS here, but in the end, nobody really gets killed.
This story is included in my copy of Wonderful Town: New York Stories from The New Yorker edited by David Remnick. I read it when I selected the Six of Diamonds for my Deal Me In 2017 short story project. My Deal Me In list can be found here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.
I suppose that the high-water mark of my youth, in Columbus, Ohio, was the night the bed fell on my father. It makes a better recitation (unless, as some of my friends have said, one has heard it five or six times) than it does a piece of writing, for it is almost necessary to throw furniture around, shake doors and bark like a dog, to lend the proper atmosphere and verisimilitude to what is, admittedly, an incredible tale. Still, it did take place.
James Thurber’s hilarious short story “The Night The Bed Fell” comes recommended by Hamlette the Dame over at The Edge of the Precipice. She recommended this to me a little while ago after I had read another story by James Thurber. And I have to say that out of the handful of Thurber stories I’ve read, this is my favorite. In addition, this is probably one of the best examples of “written” physical comedy and just a plain funny story.
While laughing out loud when I was reading it, I couldn’t help thinking how difficult it would be to write a story that is based only on people doing things that are funny. I think filming physical comedy (like say The Dick Van Dyke Show) would be much easier than writing it down.
But writing it down is what Thurber does and he does it brilliantly. Like so many physical comedy sketches, it starts with a relatively innocent decision of the narrator’s father to sleep in the attic. From there, a domino effect ensues, continuing all the way to the end. I’ll mention again the laughing out loud as it happens. If this were “real life”, I think I would be listening to this story over and over again. And laughing every time.
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At the rate I’m going, my Diamond stories are going to be gone half way through the year. Diamonds is the suit I’ve set aside for stories about baseball and while I have diligently shuffled the cards, I’ve drawn Diamonds significantly more than any other suit. But that’s OK, I’m enjoying all of the stories I’ve read so far this year including all of those about baseball.
For Week 12, I selected the Queen of Diamonds which corresponds to humorist James Thurber’s 1941 story “You Could Look It Up”. While politically incorrect by today’s standards, forgive me for finding the story funny by my standards.
Squawks Magrew manages a professional baseball team and meets up with Pearl du Monville at a hotel bar in Columbus, Ohio. The narrator points out that in spite of the feminine name, Pearl is male – and he is also “thirty-four, thirty five” inches tall. Pearl manages to get Magrew to sign him on to his team and, of course, at a crucial point in a game put Pearl in thinking he will be an easy walk (given Pearl’s shorter strike zone).
After three balls, however, Pearl decides to hit the ball:
The first baseman ketches it and stomps on the bag, the base umpire waves Pearl out, and there goes your old ball game, the craziest ball game ever played in the history of the organized world.
The craziest part of the game actually comes after Pearl’s bunt and it’s probably the part that is the most politically incorrect. So I will leave you to read the story for yourself and you can decide whether to be offended or whether to laugh. I can understand either one.
My Deal Me In 2016 list can be found here. Deal Me In is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis. This story is included in my copy of Baseball’s Best Short Stories edited by Paul D. Staudohar.
Deal Me In – Week 33
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So goes one of the machines in Walter Mitty’s daydreams from James Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”, a story that I feel as though I’m the last person in the world to read. I selected it for Week 33 of my Deal Me In Short Story project when I drew the Four of Clubs. My Deal Me In 2015 list can be seen here. Deal Me In 2015 is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.
Poor Mrs. Mitty – she is cursed with a husband who has an imagination. Walter’s mind wanders all over the place while he is running errands or doing other mundane but necessary daily tasks. I’m not sure of Walter Mitty’s age; however, he has to be too old to be pretending in the manner that he does.
I feel a strong sense of sympathy and respect for Walter Mitty.
I’ve read more of Kurt Vonnegut’s work than I have of James Thurber’s (as of right now anyway) but I can’t help but compare the two authors. They both tend to look at and make sense of the world with eyes that are different than most people and at the same time make most people think “He’s got a point”.
And, of course, in a classic and timeless manner, both authors are very funny.
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I think James Thurber could be considered the bridge between Mark Twain and Kurt Vonnegut as the premier American humorist. In reading Thurber’s short story, “University Days”, I found much to compare to the other two authors in style and wit. I read this story when I chose the Six of Diamonds for Week 33 of my Deal Me In 2014. My Deal Me In 2014 list can be seen here. DMI is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.
As a student, both in high school and college, I realized that many of us did not think of teachers as actual human beings and; therefore, they were ripe for ridicule. Thurber gets this as he spins a yarn about his days at Ohio State University immediately following World War I. His professors don’t always know what to do with him. His botany class ranks up there as my favorite episode. Unfortunately, at least for the professor, Thurber finds it difficult to see a flower cell through a microscope. Try after try, Thurber finally gets it and excitedly draws what he sees only for the professor to indicate that he has just drawn his own eyeball because he had flipped into “reflect” mode. It could be easy to go literarily deep here and say that this story represents the ability of Thurber to see differently as an artist. However, I think Thurber was just telling a funny story about his college days. I am glad that he went on, though, just like Twain and Vonnegut, to see the world the way he did. In fact, published in 1933, much of this story’s humor comes from Thurber’s ability to see that none of his educational stumbles kept him from being successful. I have a feeling that he was one of those individuals who was blessed to understand this at the time of his education and not just when he looked back years later.
For the record, there was also a time in high school when the idea struck me that teachers made just as much fun of the students.