Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Good Short Fiction: The Swimmer, Tomorrow and Your Arkansas Traveler

Collection: Adaptations: From Short Story to Big Screen
Editor: Stephanie Harrison


Title: The Swimmer
Author: John Cheever

The Swimmer gets darker as it goes, slipping from a golden summer day to a cold nightmare. It starts with Neddy Merrill - a husband and father, a man in his prime - sitting at a friend's poolside on a beautiful summer afternoon. He hits on a crazy and fun idea: to swim the several miles back to his own house. He would do this by traveling through a string of backyards and swimming across people's pools. In his head he plots out a map of backyards belonging to people who know him and wouldn't mind him passing through their property.

Everything goes swimmingly at first - he's welcomed by everyone, and the weather is warm. Swimming through the pools in one yard after another makes him feel alive. But then a chilling atmosphere starts to creep into the story. Some friends and acquaintances aren't at home or are unhappy to see him. He's brought up short by a highway he forgot to include in his mental map. A storm is coming and the air is getting colder:
It was suddenly growing dark; it was that moment when the pin-headed birds seemed to organize their song into some acute and knowledgeable recognition of the storm's approach.
At some point the story shifts from feeling solid and real to being a dreamscape where Neddy experiences ruination. The relaxed confidence he feels at the start, when he's healthy and secure in his well-to-do community, gradually gives way to disorientation and darkness. Seasons pass by instead of hours in a lazy afternoon. This makes the start of the story seem like an illusion, a pleasant summer interlude that was never as real as it appeared. Or even if it was real, it was insubstantial; Neddy's good fortunes don't survive the journey he takes.

Is all of this taking place in his head? I could see these events play out in the mind of a man who's institutionalized or close to death as he retraces the decline of his life. The journey, in which realistic events are seeded into a dreamlike world, represents his life's reversals. Cheever's story is haunting. No one feels secure in it - not the main character or the reader.

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Title: Tomorrow
Author: William Faulkner

Uncle Gavin says it don't take many words to tell the sum of any human experience; that somebody has already done it in eight: He was born, he suffered and he died.
The narrator's Uncle Gavin is a lawyer who wants to understand why a single juror, Jackson Fentry, brought about a hung jury in a recent trial by refusing to acquit the defendant. He takes his nephew along for an investigation in the hill country where Fentry lives in poverty, his appearance "at once frail and work-worn, yet curiously imperishable." There he uncovers a depressing story about two people who might have had a better, more worthwhile life had they not been torn apart.

Uncle Gavin describes the lot of "the lowly and invincible of the earth - to endure and endure and then endure, tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow." Hanging the jury was probably the closest Fentry came in his life to administering justice, or something resembling justice; even then it was mostly a useless gesture because it couldn't bring about redemption or restore what was taken from him. This is a bleak and powerful story, and though Uncle Gavin's interest in Fentry stems from professional curiosity instead of personal concern, I like that he and his nephew become witnesses to Fentry's life.

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Title: Your Arkansas Traveler
Author: Budd Schulberg

Larry "Lonesome" Rhodes is an American media sensation, a celebrity who's styled himself as a simple man with wholesome rural values and good plain commonsense. He sings a little, spins yarns about the funny but decent folks he knows from home, and dispenses advice to his devoted listeners. The only person who really sees through him is his assistant and manager, Marcia, who helped him become famous:
I made a futile effort to explain: he was no more the voice of the people than I was, with my corrupted Vassar accent. In the sheep's clothing of rural Americana, he was a shrewd businessman with a sharp eye on the main chance. He was a complicated human being, an intensely self-centered one, who chose to wear the mask of the stumbling, bumbling, good-natured, "Shucks-folks-you-know-more-about-this-stuff-'n-I-do" oaf.
Marcia acts at various points as his personal assistant, manager, agent, business associate, therapist, and mother. What she refuses to become is his mistress (or wife). She gets him contracts, keeps him propped up through personal crises, and struggles with his increasingly out-of-control behavior:
Our suite with money and wine and women and worried executives and slave writers and stooges was just about as close as you can get in this country and this century to the ancient splendors of the Persian kings.
She starts to feel dismayed by her role in his success, how she's helped a fraud become a national voice. What also bewilders her is people's willingness to blindly adore him and keep him in the spotlight. Admittedly Lonesome manages to do some good for some people. He also tells them what they want to hear; he plays on their white-washed imaginings of a simpler past inhabited by simpler people. As the story unfolds he uses his power in increasingly reckless ways, something you see over and over again with politicians, celebrities, demagogues and other charismatic manipulators. His public image becomes too inflated for him to handle with any sense of proportion. When he finally goes down only Marcia is there to witness it.

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Other stories from this anthology can be found here.

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