Over The River And Through The Wood by John O’Hara, 1934
The magic trick:
The power of pace
I’m going to talk NBA basketball today. This story reminded me of Chris Paul, probably the best point guard in the league over the last decade. He’s not as athletic as a lot of guards but he is an expert at controlling the pace of the game. While many players only know how to play in one gear: as fast as they possibly can go; Paul is the master of playing slow. Then, bam, out of nowhere he turns on jets for five minutes and lights up the defense. John O’Hara is doing his best Chris Paul impression in this story.
The story moves along slow slow slow. It’s fair to say it drags. It’s fair to say it’s pretty boring. Then, bam, out of nowhere Mr. Winfield makes a quick series of ill-fated decisions that shock and shake the reader. The flurry of action would probably be pretty memorable on its own, but coming on the heels of a very slow-moving plot, it stands up and punches the reader in the face.
The connection of the literary effect and the character’s life is a neat trick too. Everything in Mr. Winfield’s old age is moving very slowly now. The flurry of action in the story corresponds with the childish, impetuous actions of a young man. He is denied and thrown back to the slow-paced self-loathing of his dying years. It’s all pretty devastating. And that’s quite a trick on O’Hara’s part.
“Father! You’re freezing!” Mrs. Day tried very hard to keep the vexation out of her tone.
“It was a cold ride,” he said. “This time of the year. We had snow flurries between Danbury and Sheffield, but the girls enjoyed it.”
“You go right upstairs and have a bath, and I’ll send up – what would you like? Tea? Chocolate? Coffee?”
He was amused. The obvious thing would be to offer him a drink, and it was so apparent that she talking fast to avoid that. “I think cocoa would be fine, but you’d better have a real drink for Sheila and her friends.”
“Now, why do you take that tone, Father? You could have a drink if you wanted it, but you’re on the wagon, aren’t you?”
“Still on it. Up there with the driver.”