The State Of Grace by Harold Brodkey, 1954
The magic trick:
Painful description of the shame and sadness caused when a child begins to realize his or her family’s poverty in relation to the neighbors
There is much that is painful about this story; most notably, the experience of reading it. Sorry, I just find this story intolerably annoying. Brodkey is so precious and so self-absorbed, there’s hardly any room for the reader. His narrator pores over every inch of his childhood with a suffocating pomposity, and because the writing is so strong and the attention to detail so exact, it’s very difficult not to read this work as anything other than autobiographical personal essay. As a result, I’m left disliking not the narrator but Brodkey himself – fair or not.
But my apologies for the negativity; I do have a magic trick to discuss. I like the way he so completely describes the feeling of anger, jealousy, and sadness a boy feels when he realizes that his family has less money and fewer opportunities than those around him. It’s another melodramatic, self-absorbed Brodkey moment, but there’s no denying it’s genuinely well-expressed in this story. And that’s quite a trick on Brodkey’s part.
Then came an alley of black macadam and another vista, which I found shameful but drearily comfortable, of garages and ashpits and telephone poles and the backs of apartment houses – including ours – on one side, the backs of houses on the other. I knew many people in the apartments but none in the houses, and this was the ultimate proof, of course, to me of how miserably degraded I was and how far sunken beneath the surface of the sea.