Sunday, October 23, 2011

Good Short Fiction: 4 stories from Adaptations

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

Title: Auggie Wren's Christmas Story
Author: Paul Auster

Auggie Wren works at a cigar store. His real name isn't Auggie Wren; that's just what he told the author, Paul, to call him. Auggie is an unassuming guy. You wouldn't guess that he's a photographer and that every day for years he's been taking a photo of the same street corner ("the same people in the same spot every morning, living an instant of their lives in the field of Auggie's camera"). And you'd probably never guess how he got his camera. That's where the Christmas story comes in. A major part of the story is that he pretends to be a blind old lady's son who has come to visit her for Christmas; the old lady is on to him, but she's lonely and he's got nowhere else to be, so they pretend. Another thing that isn't clear is whether Auggie is making this story up. How much do you want it to be true? Either way it makes for a good story.


Title: The Harvey Pekar Name Story
Author: Harvey Pekar
Illustrator: R. Crumb (Robert Crumb)

Harvey Pekar doesn't change much from one panel to another in this short comic. He's a scruffy ordinary guy who is thinking out loud about his life and more specifically his name: Harvey Pekar. It's a strange name, he thinks, and he talks about how people used to tease him for it. He then mentions other Harvey Pekars he's seen in the phone book. This is the best part of the comic - his thoughts on the multiple Pekars and how his identity might be bound up with them. Is he connected to them in a deeper way than shared names? What are they like? Maybe his life could have turned out like theirs, who knows. "Who is Harvey Pekar?" he asks. I looked at one image after another of Harvey and wondered the same thing, getting a better sense of him but also asking myself just who he is and why it's him (and not another Harvey Pekar) featured in the comic.


Title: My Friend Flicka
Author: Mary O'Hara

When Kennie McLaughlin's father grudgingly allows him to tame one of the colts on their ranch, Kennie is drawn to a wild and fast colt that no one thinks is tameable. It's difficult to confine the young horse; she goes into a frenzy, breaks free and runs off. Her need to get away is so desperate that one day her escape attempt ends in a horrible injury:
Twenty yards of fence came down with her as she hurled herself through. Caught on the upper strands, she turned a complete somersault, landing on her back, her four legs dragging the wires down on top of her, and tangling herself in them beyond hope of escape.

The colt's chances of survival are slim; her skin is lacerated, and the wounds are infected. Even if she pulls through, there's a chance that she'll be crippled for life. Kennie needs to make a choice: he can abandon her as a lost cause and let the ranch workers shoot her, or he can try his best to nurse her back to health.

My Friend Flicka is a warm family tale, though the warmth is never cloying, and the possibility of death and serious injury is presented starkly. Part of what makes it a good story is that it shows how a young boy learns to take responsibility for another life. His attempts to tame the colt led to her injury; to discard her in the aftermath would be callous. Kennie and his horse form a deep bond; he's determined not to betray her and treat her life lightly.


Title: A Reputation
Author: Richard Edward Connell

Saunders Rook is an ordinary pleasant guy who would like to be noticed a little more. So one evening when he's dining at his club, he breaks into a lull in the conversation by telling everyone that he's going to commit suicide on the Fourth of July - a pronouncement that surprises him at least as much as it surprises his audience.
He had never demanded much of life; his existence was not rigorous, but placid. He was a sub-editor on a woman's magazine - he conducted the etiquette page - and this brought him twelve hundred dollars a year. He had inherited an income of twelve hundred more. He was able to live in modest comfort, for he was an orphan and a bachelor; he had a season ticket at the opera; his health was good. If he had a cross, it was a light one: minor editors of minor magazines usually rejected his minor essays, imitations of Charles Lamb, hymning the joys of pipe-smoking and pork-chops. So it startled him not a little to hear himself announcing his imminent self-destruction.

People who overlooked him before now turn to him with breathless questions. They ask him why he's doing this. To protest the state of civilization, he says, and they go wild with interest. Suddenly everyone is talking about Saunders Rook. He gets letters from people who either beg him to reconsider or congratulate him on his determination. He's invited to dinners thrown by intellectuals and artists, and his essays are solicited for magazines (though he notices with some nervousness that a couple are scheduled for posthumous publication). One of the ironies of the story is that Saunders loves his life, especially now that he's getting all this attention. Still, he has a reputation to maintain, so he keeps pretending that he's grown deeply disgusted with the world.
"But why do you feel that the state of civilization requires so drastic a protest?"

Deline asked this question as Saunders Rook was enjoying the third course, tender roast young guinea-fowl with mushrooms; Rook loved good food.

"Because," said Saunders Rook, with fork poised, "it's rotten."

Around the table went murmurs of approbation and interest.

Richard Connell's story pokes fun at the chattering classes and how they're quick to read profundity into Saunders Rook's words; hype, excitement and endless discussion swirl around Rook's careless statements, as if he's become a kind of prophet of the age. Connell is also careful to show us the day of reckoning: a sunny beautiful Fourth of July in Central Park, where Rook has decided to kill himself. Families are strolling and picnicking, and the city seems to be shining. Will Rook go through with it? It's the most important decision he'll ever make, and you wonder whether he'll be guided by his private self or by the demands of his public persona; maybe it's gotten to the point where his reputation really is everything. You also get the sense that no matter how he chooses, he'll fade back into obscurity at some point, once his fifteen minutes of fame are over.


Other stories from this collection include Babylon Revisited (by F. Scott Fitzgerald), The Basement Room (by Graham Greene), Killings (by Andre Dubus) and The Sentinel (by Arthur C. Clarke), along with The Swimmer (by John Cheever), Tomorrow (by William Faulkner), and Your Arkansas Traveler (by Budd Schulberg).


This post has been linked to at the Breadcrumb Reads blog in Short Stories on Wednesday #16.