The Jockey by Carson McCullers, 1941
The magic trick:
Keeping the story in one scene
I really don’t enjoy this story. And maybe I’m just dumb. I’ve read it three times and heard it on the New Yorker Fiction podcast a fourth time. Still don’t get it. I can’t, for the life of me, find any reason to care. It reminds me a little bit of some John O’Hara’s stories, where the social commentary is too much tied to its time to retain relevance 60, 70 years later.
But that’s hardly a magic trick post, so let’s take a more positive slant.
It is remarkably focused as a story. It’s a single scene. Not a lot happens. The action and judgmental observations are subtle. The tension seems to emerge from that subtlety. And that’s quite a trick on McCullers’s part.
(What the point is I still don’t know.)
The waiter brought the whiskey, and the jockey sat fondling the glass with his small, strong, callused hands. On his wrist was a gold link bracelet that clinked against the table edge. After turning the glass between his palms, the jockey suddenly drank the whiskey neat in two hard swallows. He set down the glass sharply. “No, I don’t suppose your memory is that long and extensive,” he said.
“Sure enough, Bitsy,” said Sylvester. “What makes you act like this? You hear from the kid today?”
“I received a letter,” the jockey said. “The certain person we were speaking about was taken out from the cast on Wednesday. One leg is two inches shorter than the other one. That’s all.”
Sylvester clucked his tongue and shook his head. “I realize how you feel.”
“Do you?” The jockey was looking at the dishes on the table. His gaze passed from the fish casserole to the corn, and finally fixed on the plate of fried potatoes. His face tightened and quickly he looked up again. A rose shattered and he picked up one of the petals, bruised it between his thumb and forefinger, and put it in his mouth.
“Well, those things happen,” said the rich man.
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