Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Good Short Fiction: "The Blue-Winged Teal" and "The National Pastime"

Collection: 50 Great American Short Stories
Editor: Milton Crane

Title: The Blue-Winged Teal
Author: Wallace Stegner

After Henry Lederer's mother dies, he leaves school to stay with his father, John, who has quickly slipped back into the kind of life he led before his marriage: a life of poolrooms, cheap hotel rooms, and girlfriends with "unreal hair" and perfume "like some gaseous poison tainting the clothes it touched." Henry's mother had held the family together; when she was alive his father had possessed a decent job and home. Now Henry can barely stand to look at his father, whose regression to his old life seems to show contempt for Henry's mother.
Henry had no desire to ease the strain that had been between them for months. He did not forgive his father the poolhall, or forget the way the old man had sprung back into the old pattern, as if his wife had been a jailer and he was now released.

Henry plans to tell his father that he's leaving; he'll go and get a job elsewhere and eventually return to school.
They could part without an open quarrel, maybe, but they would part without love. They could part right now, within an hour.

The evening he decides to announce that he's leaving, he discovers something that changes the way he sees his father and himself. In the poolhall his father brings up Henry's mother in a conversation that touches on chinaware and blue-winged teals, and Henry sees his father's eyes before the older man hurries from the room.
You know nothing at all, you know less than nothing because you know things wrong.

People struggle with grief in different ways; Henry's father has given up on himself. Could Henry help prop his father up, the way his mother did? Maybe his father is too old and too lost, beyond help, or maybe Henry doesn't have it in him to stay there in the poolhall underworld and try to pull his father out bit by bit without losing himself in the darkness. Henry is young, and he wants his own life; he wants the sunlight and the wider world. Maybe the only consolation offered to the sad, damaged characters in "The Blue-Winged Teal" is the son's more sympathetic understanding of his father.


Title: The National Pastime
Author: John Cheever

To be an American and unable to play baseball is comparable to being a Polynesian and unable to swim.

A classic American image is a father and son playing catch with a baseball on the lawn outside their home. As a young boy, Eben had once dreamed of becoming a professional baseball player and on a fateful Sunday afternoon had asked his father to play catch with him. His father, Leander, at first refused, then grudgingly consented following a private quarrel with Eben's mother. The two of them faced each other on the lawn, and what happened next scarred Eben for years to come:
Then I turned my head to see something - a boat on the river. He threw the ball, and it got me in the nape of the neck and stretched me out unconscious... When I came to, my nose was bleeding and my mouth was full of blood. I felt that I was being drowned.

From then on, baseball makes Eben feel physically sick. Through his childhood and into his adulthood, he tries with mixed success to hide his fear. His abnormal feelings towards baseball stem from his abnormal relationship with his father. Leander, the son of a ship's master, is dramatic and mentally unstable. He resents his son's very existence. He quotes from Shakespeare and could be a Shakespearean character himself, a wild and wily king presiding over his country house outside of St. Botolph's, Massachusetts. He haunts his son, even from afar.

The story follows Eben into adulthood. He marries, becomes a father. His life with his wife and kids is loving and untroubled, free of the dysfunctional family dynamics that marked his childhood. For a long while he can't really make peace with his past or lay it to rest, and the taste of blood in his mouth emerges during baseball games like a nasty smell from behind a closed door. Wounds deeply inflicted can emerge in absurd ways, and Cheever writes about the characters and their circumstances with a touch of dark humor. Leander himself is a mix of tragic and comic, a mean old man and an eccentric codger.


Other stories in this collection include: The Girls in Their Summer Dresses (by Irwin Shaw) and A New England Nun (by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman), along with Silent Snow, Secret Snow (by Conrad Aiken) and The Damned Thing (by Ambrose Bierce).