I'm reading three collections of short stories these days sitting at the window as the low sun strikes over the frost rimed lawn. Blaze the tom is catching those rays too on the cill. He's a young one in his first season, black with jade eyes and as yet unmarked by fights. Which leads me to Thom Jones's The Pugalist at Rest. There is in his work a finely wrought amalgam of scholarly violence with an emphasis on the conclusion which is usually a knock out. Jones knows what he is talking about having suffered brain damage as a marine boxer who met someone harder and badder than he was. He died recently.
pugilist at rest
Jones never was in Vietnam but he met the scholars coming home. His account of action there demonstrates the very great advantage that fighting on your own turf brings even when the visitors are highly fancied. They can always go home and bring trophy noses home with them, the home side have nowhere to go and can die well knowing that their graves will be kept by descendents. Thom Jones draws in reflections on the Greek statue to make his point. Powerful and horrible. 'Can we win next time' asked John Rambo. This is an answer.
Another writer who died recently in the fullness of years and attainment was William Trevor, master fabulist who specialised in characters who suffer slippage in the clutch when changing from 'in here' to 'out there'. He makes a world in his stories by establishing each character however tangential with a quirky reality. This isn't the clotting of dense plotting (oh!). It's the swift touches of the master. An Evening with John Joe Dempsey begins:
In Keogh's one evening Mr.Lynch talked about the Picadilly tarts, and John Joe Dempsey on his fifteenth birthday closed his eyes and travelled into a world he did not know. 'Big and little,' said Mr. Lynch 'winking their eyes at you and enticing you up to them. Wetting their lips,' said Mr.Lynch with the ends of their tongues.'
John O'Hara's stories are of a very high order too with not a lot of humour but considerable delicate attention to the nuances of class. Some are slight enough, you know that reversal of what Malcolm Cowley said of the short story 'something happens as a result of which everything chages'. Here nothing happens as a result of which nothing is changed or a stasis which is its own denoument. Not having an American ear I can't judge the accuracy of his dialogue, many of the stories have little else and my informed sources tell me that he was uncanny. It's all so long ago anyway, all we have now are the rhythms and the repetitions but they would remain as echoes to the educated ear.
In Goodbye, Herman a man comes home to find that his father's barber from his home town has been waiting with a package. In it is his fathers shaving mug:
Herman stood still while Paul undid the package, revealing a shaving mug. "This was my father's. Herman shaved him every day of his life, I guess."
"Well, not every day. The Daddy didn't start shaving till he was I guess eighteen years old, and he used to go away a lot. But I guess I shaved him more than all the other barbers put together."
Damn right you did. Dad always swore by you, Herman."
"Yes, I guess that's right," said Herman.
"See, Elsie?" said Paul, holding up the mug.
He read the gold lettering: "J-D-Miller, M.D."
"Mn. Why do you get it? You're not the oldest boy. Henry's older than you." said Elsie.
Herman looked at her and then at Paul. He frowned a little. "Paul, will you do me a favor? I don't want Henry to know it, that I gave you this mug. After the Daddy died, I said, "Which one will I give the mug to?" Henry was entitled to it, being the oldest and all. In a way he should have got it. But not saying anything against Henry - well, I don't know."
We were told that brother Henry had been in for a shave three times while he was there for his father's funeral. Maybe there was a demand, an 'ask' there like the reason the Yale president refused an honorary degree to O'Hara. "Because he asked".