‘Cheap In August’ by Graham Greene

Greene, Graham 1964

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.

The selection:

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.

‘The Keyhole Eye’ by John Stewart Carter

The Keyhole Eye by John Stewart Carter, 1962

The magic trick:

Spanning the storys arc to cover 40-50 years

Obviously, a novel is better suited than a short story for detailing a man’s life from birth to death. More pages, more space. Still, many short stories manage the trick, and “The Keyhole Eye” is one of them. The story’s most poignant moments thrive on the compare-contrast of generations through the relationship between an uncle and his nephew. The story opens with the narrator (the nephew) as a child and ends with him at 50. Such a scale allows the reader to see the familial relationships change and grow and weaken. And that’s quite a trick on Carter’s part.

The selection:

“’Bout time you got up kid, huh? Today’s the wedding day.” My gaze went past the reflection into the mirror, and he looked very happy there. I smiled and stretched, drawing my eyes back into myself. “You sure look comfortable.”

“I am,” I said through my yawn.

I shook my head and found him again in the mirror. “You looked so comfortable, so damned asleep when I came in – rough night, kid, rough night – ” (I lost his eyes then when he began to fuss with his cuff links) “that I just went to your bed, and that’s where I slept.”

Inside of me warm, wet, sudden tears began. I can still feel them flood my heart; so I know and knew what they were. But of course I didn’t cry them then and I don’t now. They just exist in me and always have. I hope I have them in some poems somewhere. I hope I have them here. Anyway, we never looked at each other, ever again.

‘The Contest For Aaron Gold’ by Philip Roth

Roth, Philip 1955

The Contest For Aaron Gold by Philip Roth, 1955

The magic trick:

Keeping the storytelling process simple; staying out of the way

I find it amazing, bordering on unbelievable, that Philip Roth was 22 years old when this story was published. Not only because the story is so good, but because of why it is of such high quality. The key is that the writer stays out of the way. The restraint Roth shows here is remarkable. He does nothing fancy. He doesn’t cram in the metaphors or balance out scenes at the beginning and end with repeated symbols. Sure, there is the underlying Holocaust commentary, as he makes plain that Werner was forced from his Austrian home by the Nazis. But even that is subtext. Mostly, Roth simply tells the story of a summer camp where the adults have forgotten to put aside their own petty problems in favor of what is best for the children. Laying back and letting the story unfold naturally is not so easy for the most seasoned of writers. For a young author anxious to prove his talent worthy of the world’s attention, restraint like this is almost unheard of. And that’s quite a trick on Roth’s part.

The selection:

“I don’t mean to say you held him up, Werner. I know kids – they dawdle, play around. Just remind him to get down on time.” He dropped his voice to a confidential octave. “Lefty tells me that the kid is kind of peculiar. Having a helluva time teaching him to swim.”

“Peculiar?”

“Yea. You know, if there’s one thing parents want to see visiting day it’s their kid swimming around like a goddam fish.”

Werner said that was probably true.

“But you know, Werner,” Steinberg started away, “even old Lefty can’t teach them if they’re not there.”

“Mr. Steinberg – “

“Damn near forgot,” Steinberg called back. “Every kid’s going to have something finished by visiting day, Werner. Parents want something for their money.”

Werner thought of baseballs and pancakes. “I suppose so, Mr. Steinberg.”

‘Bardon Bus’ by Alice Munro

Munro, Alice 1982

Bardon Bus by Alice Munro, 1982

The magic trick:

Establishing the narrator’s reliability with two key sections of the story

This isn’t the first time we’ve run into a story that mocks the concept here at the ol’ SSMT website. “Bardon Bus” is an especially obvious example, though. The notion of breaking this story’s magic down into some easily explained writer’s trick is pretty silly. I read it three times this week, and I still don’t know how she did it. Sometimes art – in this case, writing – can feel attainable in spite of its brilliance. The reader finishes the story and wants to start writing a piece of his or her own, feeling like, “Yeah! I get it! I can do that! It’s not impossible!” This story produces the opposite effect. Any would-be writer will likely put down “Bardon Bus” and swear off writing forevermore, feeling like, “Holy hell, Bardon Bus, I could never in a million years capture emotion like that in a story! I give up!” Or maybe that was just me. Anyway…

Munro taps into emotion her so intense, so true, it’s kind of scary. Her narrator is analyzing and rationalizing and lamenting and analyzing some more a short-lived relationship with a man that ended some months before. As I said, I really could never explain how Munro presents the raw emotion. If I could, I’d be a far better reader and writer. I will at least say that she works hard to establish her narrator as a reliable witness.

We get two sections – one at the beginning and one in the middle – that go a long way to convincing us of our narrator’s level head. The introductory section shows her quite poetically, if ominously, admitting that in another time she could very easily follow the path set by some of her ancestors as an obsessed old maid. Then later in the story, she breaks from her tale of woe long enough to discuss her roommate’s love life. She assesses her friend with maturity, wisdom and only light judgment. These sections do much to validate the narrator, so that when she tells of her heartbreak elsewhere in the story, the reader can take it at face value. We don’t read her as a drama queen; thus the raw emotion is that much rawer. And that’s quite a trick on Munro’s part.

That’s my best guess anyway. I’d highly recommend you read this one yourself –don’t even bother to figure it out, just enjoy the ride.

The selection:

Once she disguised herself as an old woman, with a gray wig and a tattered fur coat; she walked up and down, in the cold, outside the house of the woman she thought to be her supplanter. She will talk coldly, sensibly, wittily, about her mistake, and tell discreditable things she has gleaned about her lover, then make desperate phone calls. She will get drunk, and sign up for rolfing, swim therapy, gymnastics.

In none of this is she so exceptional. She does what women do. Perhaps she does it more often, more openly, just a bit more illadvisedly, and more fervently. Her powers of recovery, her faith, are never exhausted. I joke about her, everybody does, but I defend her too, saying that she is not condemned to living with reservations and withdrawals, long-drawn-out dissatisfactions, inarticulate wavering miseries. Her trust is total, her miseries are sharp, and she survives without visible damage. She doesn’t allow for drift or stagnation and the spectacle of her life is not discouraging to me.

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‘Pigeon Feathers’ by John Updike

Updike, John 1961a

Pigeon Feathers by John Updike, 1961

The magic trick:

Structure, structure, structure

I’m not so good at noticing the structure of a short story unless I’m specifically looking for it. I wasn’t looking for it when I read “Pigeon Feathers,” but it was too obvious to miss. Updike unfolds the story very meticulously. He’s in no rush. No hurry. David, our 14-year-old protagonist, sees his conflict develop from adjusting to a new hometown to the adjustment of child to adult to, finally, everybody’s favorite religious, spiritual, existential debate about the afterlife.

His crises never hit a fever pitch. It’s a story of thought more than action. When the action does finally present itself – David has to clear out some pigeons from his family’s barn by shooting them – Updike doesn’t play it up for drama. He keeps the focus on the boy’s thoughts and the boy’s resulting philosophy.

Structurally, it’s an extraordinarily linear story, tracking the boy’s internal crisis from beginning to resolution. And that’s quite a trick on Updike’s part.

The selection:

Then, before he could halt his eyes, David slipped into Wells’s account of Jesus. He had been an obscure political agitator, a kind of hobo, in a minor colony of the Roman Empire. By an accident impossible to reconstruct, he (the small h horrified David) survived his own crucifixion and presumably died a few weeks later. A religion was founded on the freakish incident. The credulous imagination of the times retrospectively assigned miracles and supernatural pretensions to Jesus; a myth grew, and then a church, whose theology at most points was in direct contradiction of the simple, rather communistic teachings of the Galilean.

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‘Where I’m Calling From’ by Raymond Carver

Carver, Raymond 1982a

Where I’m Calling From by Raymond Carver, 1982

The magic trick:

Combining form and function through one expository conversation

Happy new year! And nothing says happiness quite like a Raymond Carver recovering-alcoholic story!

To be fair, this story does take place over New Year’s. Our narrator is starting another year by avoiding his problems – the fear of near-seizures, concerns over his girlfriend’s potential illness. Carver is able to make that point rather ingeniously through the story’s form. The narrator relates J.P.’s story as J.P. tells it to him. Through this telling, the reader is able to get a fully constructed character study to act as a counterpoint to the narrator. At the same time, we see first hand a way in which the narrator is able to duck his own problems. He revels in the stories of those around him; anything to keep his mind off his own worries. The form follows function with follows form. Or something like that. And that’s a neat trick on Carver’s part.

The selection:

J.P. says she put her hands on her hips and looked him over. Then she found a business card in the front seat of her truck. She gave it to him. She said, “Call this number after ten tonight. We can talk. I have to go now.” She put the top hat on and then took it off. She looked at J.P. once more. She must have liked what she saw, because this time she grinned. He told her there was a smudge near her mouth. Then she got into her truck, tooted the horn, and drove away.

“Then what?” I say. “Don’t stop now, J.P.”

I was interested. But I would have listened if he’d been going on about how one day he’d decided to start pitching horseshoes.

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‘In Greenwich, There Are Many Gravelled Walks’ by Hortense Calisher

Calisher, Hortense 1951

In Greenwich, There Are Many Gravelled Walks by Hortense Calisher, 1950

The magic trick:

Separating the story into three distinct, but linked, dramas

What an odd story. It feels very British. Very Brideshead.

It is essentially tells three stories in one. First, we have the portrait of Peter’s mother, whose routines alternate between alcoholic and institutionalized. Next, we get a snapshot of the local bohemian, art, gay scene, which includes the memorable character of Robert. And finally, we have the connection between Susan, Robert’s daughter, and Peter. Two young adults picking up the pieces in the wake of the parents’ inability to function as adults.

Like I said, it’s an odd story, a sad story. Three-for-one; thrice as memorable. And that’s quite a trick on Calisher’s part.

The selection:

It was curious, he supposed now, stubbing out a final cigarette, that he had never judged resentfully either his mother or her world. By the accepted standards, his mother had done her best; he had been well housed, well schooled, even better loved than some of the familied boys he had known. Wisely, too, she had kept out of his other life, so that he had never had to be embarrassed there except once, and this when he was grown, when she has visited his Army camp. Watching her at a post party for visitors, poised there, so chic, so distinctive, he had suddenly seen it begin: the feat, the scare, the compulsive talking, which always started so innocently that only he would have noticed at first – that warm, excited, buttery flow of harmless little lies and pretensions which gathered its dreadful speed and content and ended then, after he had whipped her away, just as it had ended this morning.

 

‘A&P’ by John Updike

Updike, John 1961

A&P by John Updike, 1961

The magic trick:

Combining small-scale judgment with larger-scale ambiguity

“A&P” is precisely the kind of story for which I started the Short Story Magic Tricks blog. We’re told it’s good. We think it’s good. But why is it good? On the surface of things, it is simply a short story about a young supermarket clerk who quits his job in show of support for three girls who shop in the store wearing bathing suits. Surely there’s more going on there, right? Well…

Consider this but an amateur guess, but it strikes me that the story’s central appeal lies in Updike’s playing of two extremes against each other. He imbues his first-person narrator, Sammy the aforementioned supermarket clerk, with a lawyer’s eye for detail and judgment. Sammy describes the scene – particularly the three bathing beauties – with remarkable observations. He’s analyzing their tan lines, determining how long they’ve owned their bathing suits, how often they walk barefoot. He’s referring to other customers as “house-slaves in pin curlers.” He’s noting a customer’s purchase of pineapple juice. He is giving the reader the entire picture – observed, projected, and criticized – inch for inch.

The narrative voice alone elevates the story above the mundaneness of its subject matter. It’s the other extreme Updike mixes in, though, that really makes the story special.

In direct contrast to the narrator’s state-of-the-A&P address, Updike completely restrains himself from offering any detail or analysis as to the narrator’s actions or, really, what the story might mean. He leaves the meaning untold. As a result, the reader is free to analyze as he or she might wish. Is it a story representing the last innocent years in America; a society ready to transition into the chaos of the 1960s? Is it a coming-of-age story about a young man about to take on the world? What happens to Sammy now, having quit his job? What happens to the girls? Are they embarrassed? Are they even aware of the part they played in this drama?

All of these questions are left to the reader to ponder; and it’s a process made all the more tantalizing because the reader finishes the story still buzzing on the narrator’s tone of detailed inspection and analysis. It all adds up to the mundane made magical. And that’s quite a trick on Updike’s part.

The selection:

You know, it’s one thing to have a girl in a bathing suit down on the beach, where what with the glare nobody can look at each other much anyway, and another thing in the cool of the A & P, under the fluorescent lights, against all those stacked packages, with her feet paddling along naked over our checkerboard green-and-cream rubber-tile floor.

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‘His Father’s Son’ by Edith Wharton

Wharton, Edith 1909

His Father’s Son by Edith Wharton, 1909

The magic trick:

Allowing Mason Grew to tell his own story in the story’s second half

Sometimes autobiography is the best way. In “His Father’s Son,” the reader learns about Mason Grew’s life and marriage from a biographical standpoint. The omniscient narrator tells us of Mason’s career, his passions unfulfilled, the story of his marriage, etc. Of course, the trick is the information that Wharton leaves out.

It is only in Section 3 of the story, when the perspective shifts toward the autobiographical, that the reader gets the complete picture of the man. Mason Grew explains his life, his passions, his marriage, and, specifically, the mystery of his wife’s written correspondence with a famous musician, to his son, thereby filling in all the gaps Wharton had previously left empty during the story’s first two sections. Mason’s version of events completely alters the view for both the son and the reader. And that’s quite a trick on Wharton’s part.

The selection:

“Well, they weren’t bad,” said Mr. Grew drily. “But I’ll tell you
 one thing, Ronny,” he added suddenly. Ronald raised his head with a
quick glance, and Mr. Grew continued: “I’ll tell you where the best
 of those letters is – it’s in you. If it hadn’t been for that one 
look at life I couldn’t have made you what you are. Oh, I know 
you’ve done a good deal of your own making – but I’ve been there 
behind you all the time. And you’ll never know the work I’ve spared 
you and the time I’ve saved you…”

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