Flight by John O’Hara, 1964
The magic trick:
Snappy dialogue between a married couple that is neither contentious nor sappy
You read enough short stories – and man, I’ve been reading a lot lately – and you start to grow a little wary of the arguing married couple motif. I don’t know if the dissatisfied marriage is especially particular to writers or what, but the concept certainly dominates American fiction. Whether it’s Cheever or Moore or yesterday’s SSMT story by Stephen King, we’ve seen many bored, grumpy, mean-spirited conversations between married couples.
So, with all that said, it is so refreshing to read a story like “Flight,” in which we meet a married couple that doesn’t argue like robots programmed for bilious comments. Charles and Emily talk with a realness uncommon in literature. O’Hara hits all the right notes with the dialogue. They are not the standard-issue middle-aged dissatisfieds. But nor are they maudlin, spouting out saccharine platitudes. They care about each other. They have had problems, clearly, with each other over the years. They have endured crises, tragedies, quarrels. But there is a quiet foundation of love that only accrued experience together can build. That isn’t flashy or dramatic, and therefore often doesn’t get its just due in literature. It’s an important and familiar aspect of modern life nonetheless and one that “Flight” illustrates rather beautifully. And that’s quite a trick on O’Hara’s part.
“You make it sound like a Boy Scout with an old lady crossing the street. No thanks, I’ll make it. You carry my drink and run my tub while I get undressed.”
“I can’t be sure whether you’re serious or not,” she said.
“I’m not sure myself, if the truth be known,” he said. “Actually I’m not in any great pain, but I got shaken up.”
“Yes, that can be as bad as a real injury,” she said.
“It is a real injury. What are you talking about? What’s worse at our age than getting bounced around and unable to get to your feet? I went through positive hell out there.”
“You did? How long were you there?” she said.
“Lying there? I must have been lying there – at least a hundred and twenty seconds, every second seems like a small eternity. But then I finally struggled manfully to my feet, risking another fall, another outrage to my dignity, and not to mention the peril of my fragile bones. But I drew myself up to my full height and marched bravely, triumphantly home. The indomitable spirit of Charles David Kinsmith. Then with scarcely a mention of the whole episode, so’s not to disturb the composure of his excitable, loving spouse, he partakes of a small whiskey and a small sip of another, and is now about to mount the stairs to the second-story bedchamber, divest himself of raiment, and gingerly lower himself into the soothing waters of a hot bath.”
“What I like about you is your stoical courage.”
“That’s right. Stiff upper lip, we call it. Never let on when disaster strikes. Suffer in silence.”
“Suffer in silence, that’s it,” she said. “All right, let’s go upstairs. You go first and I’ll follow.”
“In case I shouldn’t be too steady on my pins?” he said. “You’ll be there to catch me?”
“Yes, my dear,” she said.