On Saturday Afternoon by Alan Sillitoe, 1959
The magic trick:
Taking a story of suicide and setting everything askew in order to comment on society
Everything about this story is slightly askew. I mean, the entire premise is a 16-year-old boy telling us about the time a few years back he watched – and even assisted – a stranger trying to hang himself. But no, that’s not the odd part. The weirdness lies in the total lack of drama surrounding his retelling. He does not seem particularly surprised by the man’s decision. He is entertained – comparing it to the movies he missed that day.
No one in the story, in fact, shows much concern. The woman in town sees the man buy the rope but only laughs when he claims he’s going to hang himself. The police put the man in jail, citing suicide as illegal. The boy, telling the story six years later, demonstrates zero interest in the man’s plight. He only uses the experience as a means to reflect upon the depression among his own family.
The result is a very dark comedy. The story is so askew it’s almost funny. But it also paints a bleak picture of small-town England in the middle 20th century. The society of this story is selfish with a very limited worldview. And that’s quite a trick on Sillitoe’s part.
I’ve never known a family look as black as our family when they’re fed-up. I’ve seen the old man with his face so dark and full of murder because he ain’t got no fags or was having to use saccharine to sweeten his tea, or even for nothing at all, that I’ve backed out of the house in case he got up from his fireside chair and came for me. He just sits there, almost on top of the fire, his oil-stained Sunday-joint maulers opened out in front of him and facing inwards to each other, his thick shoulders scrunched forward, and his dark brown eyes staring into the fire. Now and again he’ll say a dirty word, for no reason at all, the worst you can think of, and when he starts saying this you know it’s time to clear out. If mam’s in it gets worse than ever, because she says sharp to him: “What are yo’ looking so bleddy black for?” as if it might be because of something she’s done, but before you know what’s happening he’s tipped up a tableful of pots and mam’s gone out of the house crying. Dad hunches over the fire and goes on swearing. All because of a packet of fags.
I once saw him broodier than I’d ever seen him, so that I thought he’d gone crackers in a quiet sort of way … until a fly flew to within a yard of him. Then his hand shot out, got it, and slung it crippled into the roaring fire. After that he cheered up a bit and mashed some tea.
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