The Ransom Of Red Chief by O. Henry, 1907
The magic trick:
The comedy of not just the story’s idea but its execution
Love him or hate him, O. Henry played an essential role in developing the American short story. We do have a major annual award named after him for a reason, right?
Is his writing racist? Oh yeah. Sexist? Painfully so. And oh, those tidy little ironic endings that always seem to recall a ridiculous womp-womp trombone in the reader’s head. I know there’s a lot there to loathe.
But… (and in case you’re wondering, it’s O. Henry Week here at the SSMT site) I’d like to make a case for Sidney Porter during the next five days. The racism and sexism can be tough, I’ll grant, though they don’t necessarily mark him as being anything but of his times. And, hey, the endings are great. The stories are inventive. The voice is comical and alive and always enthusiastic. And taken together, his stories paint a picture of turn-of-the-century New York that in its own way is every bit as vibrant as Chekhov’s lasting storylogue of Russia.
So let’s go.
We start with “Red Chief,” among O. Henry’s most famous and my favorite of his stories. One complaint, I suppose, about his work is that once you know the ironic plot twist, why bother re-reading? Valid in some cases. “Red Chief” holds up, though, simply because it is so funny.
The idea for the story is funny – a kidnapped kid so awful that even his parents don’t want him back (sorry if that was a spoiler, but come on, you’ve had 112 years). The execution of that idea is even funnier. The first-person narration is hilarious, the characterizations are great and the kid is a riot.
So there you go. All you O. Henry haters. Get over it, at least on this one. It’s hilarious. Go laugh and enjoy yourself for 20 minutes. And that’s quite a trick on O. Henry’s part.
Just at daybreak, I was awakened by a series of awful screams from Bill. They weren’t yells, or howls, or shouts, or whoops, or yawps, such as you’d expect from a manly set of vocal organs–they were simply indecent, terrifying, humiliating screams, such as women emit when they see ghosts or caterpillars. It’s an awful thing to hear a strong, desperate, fat man scream incontinently in a cave at daybreak.
I jumped up to see what the matter was. Red Chief was sitting on Bill’s chest, with one hand twined in Bill’s hair. In the other he had the sharp case-knife we used for slicing bacon; and he was industriously and realistically trying to take Bill’s scalp, according to the sentence that had been pronounced upon him the evening before.