Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Good Short Fiction: 3 stories from Adaptations

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

This anthology has excellent selections from both obscure and well-known authors along with a discussion of how each story came to be adapted for the big screen. The following three stories are all bleak, in different ways. I grouped them together here because they gnawed at me as I read them and when I thought about them after.

Title: Babylon Revisited
Author: F. Scott Fitzgerald

Charlie Wales squandered his money, health, marriage, and guardianship of his young daughter, and has only recently gotten back on his feet. His sister-in-law, Marion, is his daughter's current legal guardian, and Charlie needs to prove to her and to her husband that he has given up his old habits of drink and dissipation. It doesn't help that he and Marion dislike one another. She blames him for the death of his wife, Helen, while he thinks she's hanging onto his daughter's guardianship out of spite and resentment of his wealth. In his heart he knows that Marion's hesitation to trust him is understandable, even as he seethes at her pettiness; he's eaten up by shame at how careless he once was with everything important.

Charlie cuts a lonely tired figure who has a long road ahead of him. He can't undo the past or shake off acquaintances from his years of wild living and big spending. What keeps him going is his dream of a future where he's settled, stable, with his daughter beside him, his one hope for redemption. Every day more time is lost, his daughter grows older; the dream might recede from him. Even though the end of the story isn't hopeless, it still hurts to read it.

He would come back someday; they couldn't make him pay forever. But he wanted his child, and nothing was much good now, beside that fact. He wasn't young anymore, with a lot of nice thoughts and dreams to have by himself. He was absolutely sure Helen wouldn't have wanted him to be so alone.


Title: The Basement Room
Author: Graham Greene

This story sinks you into the shoddy and pathetic mess that the characters make of their lives. The bleakness is beautifully written and unrelenting.

While his parents are away a young boy stays at home with Mr. and Mrs. Baines, the husband and wife who serve as butler and housekeeper. As the story progresses he gets submerged in the darkness of their lives; they burden him with secrets, use him as an accomplice to their deceit, and by the end expose him to deadly violence. Mrs. Baines is terrifying; she reminds me in some ways of Madame Defarge from A Tale of Two Cities, keeping meticulous and bitter track of all the wrongs done to her and all the misdeeds that deserve punishment. Mr. Baines is not frightening so much as irresponsible and weak. Both of them are doomed.

The night-light stood beside the mirror and Mrs. Baines could see bitterly there her own reflection, misery and cruelty wavering in the glass, age and dust and nothing to hope for. She sobbed without tears, a dry, breathless sound; but her cruelty was a kind of pride which kept her going; it was her best quality, she would have been merely pitiable without it.

Making matters worse we get glimpses of the boy's life years into the future, on his deathbed attended only by his secretary; Greene wants to make sure we know that the boy will be scarred for life and will grow up mistrustful of others, unproductive and deeply alone. Throughout the story the reader feels as trapped as the child, swallowed up by the shadows that the adults project on every page.

Title: Killings
Author: Andre Dubus

Matt Fowler's son has been killed. His son's killer, Richard Strout, is walking around free before the trial is set to start, and Matt and his wife, Ruth, keep seeing him everywhere; it's eating them alive. Matt decides he doesn't want to wait for a trial, which might result in a lenient sentence. He wants to kill his son's murderer. Those are the hard simple facts. But nothing else is simple.

Richard Strout is not a sympathetic character. He has always spelled trouble for other people. Matt knows this. He also knows that Richard lives, breathes, wears underwear, goes out drinking, has photos in his home, other people in his life who might care whether he lives or dies. Matt becomes conscious of "circles of love" surrounding Richard; some of those circles Richard himself has ruptured, others might still be intact. As the story draws towards the end a net seems to gather around the characters. There's a strange intimacy between them: Matt touching the muzzle of his gun to Richard's head in the dark of Richard's car. Taking control of another man's life.

It's a complex and powerful story. Some events, even gunshots, seem to take place in a world that has a hushed, underwater quality to it.
They stood still for a moment. The woods were quiet save for their breathing, and Matt remembered hearing the movements of birds and small animals after the first shot. Or maybe he had not heard them.


Other stories from this collection are The Sentinel (by Arthur C. Clarke), along with Auggie Wren's Christmas Story (by Paul Auster), The Harvey Pekar Name Story (by Harvey Pekar), My Friend Flicka (by Mary O'Hara), and A Reputation (by Richard Edward Connell) plus these three here.

This post has been linked to at Short Stories on Wednesday #10 over at Bread Crumb Reads blog.


naida said...

I do like to read bleak stories, if im in the mood for them. The Andre Dubus one sounds intense.
Nice reviews.

CHE said...

these sound very powerful. I look forward to reading about more stories from this collection. Just stumbled on to your blog through Breadcrumb Reads and am your newest follower.

Nan said...

Oh, poor Fitzgerald. I wonder if this happened to some degree with his own daughter. The words of Ray Davies from the Kinks keep coming back, 'oh, demon alcohol.' So sad.

I've read The Basement Room and seen the movie!! More here if you want to read it:

I even offered the same quote. :<)

I've read about Dubus but not read his work. He had a lot of tragedy in his life. Have you read his son's work? I've heard it is pretty dark, as well.

Great, great review of these three stories.