Cheap In August by Graham Greene, 1964
The magic trick:
Turning an unlikely relationship into a beautiful thing
This is not the likeliest of loves. True, Mary came to Jamaica with hopes of a vacation tryst, but the old man she hooks up with is described as splashing water “like an elephant” when she meets him. She is nearing the end of her youth. The man, a Mr. Hickslaughter, is nearing the end of his life. She is educated, full of philosophies on life. He is a schemer who can’t even remember the name of his favorite poem.
Greene pulls the couple together gradually, revealing surprising characteristics along the way about both people. Certainly, Mary is even lonelier and more desperate than we imagined at the beginning of the story.
What is amazing though, and ultimately is the story’s greatest gift, is Greene ability to use the relationship to both lower and raise Mary as a character. Even as we come to see her marriage as perhaps more hollow than we first thought, her encounter with the old man also paints her as tougher and more capable person than she was at the story’s outset. The relationship has served its purpose for both characters, and now they can move on with their lives, apart from each other but stronger for having been together. What began as an odd coupling becomes a beautiful thing. And that’s quite a trick on Greene’s part.
It was as though she were discovering for the first time the interior of the enormous continent on which she had elected to live. America had been Charlie, it had been New England; through books and movies she had been aware of the wonders of nature like some great cineramic film with Lowell Thomas cheapening the Painted Desert and the Grand Canyon with his clichés. There had been no mystery anywhere from Miami to Niagara Falls, from Cape Cod to the Pacific Palisades; tomatoes were served on every plate, Coca-Cola in every glass. Nobody anywhere admitted failure or fear; they were like sins “hushed up” – worse perhaps than sins, for sins have glamour – they were bad taste.