Sunday, August 26, 2012

Good Short Fiction: 5 Tales from 44 Irish Short Stories

Collection: 44 Irish Short Stories
Editor: Devin A. Garrity

It was difficult to get into 44 Irish Short Stories, and I put it aside for a while, but eventually I came across the following five stories, which I thought were all good. I love their wry humor - it doesn't matter how dark the subject matter is, you can see the authors writing about it with a hint of a smile. Reminds me of Jewish humor - can't escape life's misfortunes so you might as well laugh.

Title: The Drunkard
Author: Frank O'Connor

In The Drunkard, a boy tries to stop his father from getting drunk.

The father is usually an upstanding citizen, but whenever he takes to drink he launches into a days-long alcoholic spree that risks ruining his family. This time it's a neighbor's funeral that might set him off. As his son observes:
I knew the danger signals were in full force: a sunny day, a fine funeral, and a distinguished company of clerics and public men were bringing out all the natural vanity and flightiness of Father's character. It was with something like genuine pleasure that he saw his old friend lowered into the grave; with the sense of having performed a duty and the pleasant awareness that however much he would miss poor Mr. Dooley in the long summer evenings, it was he and not poor Mr. Dooley would do the missing.
By the end of the story the father and son will have traded places. The father will see himself mirrored in the son, and the son will see that it's easy to become just like his father.


Title: Nan Hogan's House
Author: Seumas O'Kelly

Nan Hogan is the resident curmudgeon of Kilbeg. She's elderly, alone and has suffered great misfortunes in life, which for the most part is why people put up with her sharp tongue. She's also something of an institution in the town and has a long-standing rivalry with another woman, Sara Finnessy.

Early in the story, Nan becomes so unwell that she can't take care of herself. For her own good, and against her will, the townsfolk contrive to send her to a hospital for poor people. There she meets Maura Casey, who scrubs the hospital floors. Maura has traveled from one workhouse to another all her life, living in abject poverty. In Nan she sees an opportunity to finally make a home for herself somewhere.

Nan's house becomes the site of a showdown between the three women - Nan, Sara and Maura. The story shows how people acting out of self-serving motives might still bring about some good for others. It also raises the question of what makes a place home, worth claiming and defending and returning to.

(One question - what is "ologone"? I wish I'd written out the sentence where this word appears but from what I remember from the context it sounds like a wail of lament or maybe an elegy. But I haven't been able to find a definition of it anywhere yet.)


Title: Schoolfellows
Author: James Stephens

Two men who used to be schoolmates bump into each other. One of them leads a quiet life with a family and a steady job. The other is an alcoholic who'll exploit every convention of friendship to get money for another drink.
We had now met quite a number of times. He had exhausted our schooldays as a topic; he knew nothing about politics or literature or city scandal, and talk about weather dies of inanition in less than a minute; and yet - he may have groaned at the necessity - there had to be fashioned a conversational bridge which should unite drink to drink, or drinks must cease.
With time the pretense of friendship gives way to suffocating parasitism.


Title: Teresa
Author: Sean O'Faolain

Great portrait of a novice in a nunnery (Teresa) who loves the thought of being a martyr. She finds it satisfying to think of herself as nobly suffering and sacrificing, and in a position to assume a holier-than-thou attitude.

At the start of the story she and an older nun, Sister Patrick, are traveling to France to help Teresa reach a decision about whether she wants to be a nun and if so, what Order she would want to belong to.

I liked several elements of this story, including Sister Patrick's fondness for chocolates. The story can be beautifully atmospheric:
Here she heard footsteps in the street below, an occasional motor-car swishing over the cobbles, the soft, whispering downfall of April rain.
And poetic:
The little wavelets fell almost inaudibly, drunken with the fullness of the tide, exhausted and soothed by their own completion.
And eerie:
Behind the grille was a gauze, and presently Teresa's eyes made out, behind the gauze, a still face from which the gauze had eroded all recognizable character. All she could see was the vaguest outline of a countenance.
Her idea of sacrifice seems to be driven mostly by short-lived feelings and fleeting impressions. Ideas catch her up in their grip, and then release her soon after.


Title: Weep for Our Pride
Author: James Plunkett

Weep for Our Pride has a funny and cringeworthy depiction of classroom embarrassment: a student asked to recite stanzas from a poem he was supposed to have memorized but didn't. The schoolmaster strides up and down the rows between the desks, calling on students at random and sending them to the front of the room to get their hands whacked if they haven't learned the poem. He calls on the unfortunate Peter and gives him a prompt to start him off.
"Wail - wail him through the island," he said as he walked. Then he turned around suddenly and said, "Well, go on."

"Wail, wail him through the island," Peter said once more and stopped.

"Weep," hinted Mr. O'Rourke.

He regarded Peter closely, his eyes narrowing.

"Weep," said Peter, ransacking the darkness of his mind but finding only emptiness.

"Weep, weep, weep," Mr. O'Rourke said, his voice rising.

Peter chanced his arm. He said, "Wail, wail him through the island, weep, weep, weep."
The story highlights the link between pride and violence. The schoolmaster is a proud patriot who needs to hit students who haven't done their homework, in part because he takes their poor academic performance as an insult to him and to the country. Another teacher, Brother Quinlan, also administers physical punishment. His pride is evident in his attitude towards students, to whom he feels superior in understanding and conduct, and in his complacency about his teachings, seen in the irony of him hitting his students to teach them that physical violence is bad and charity and forbearance are good.

Then there's Peter's pride, which eventually leads him to a violent confrontation with another boy. His bad day begins when he's forced to go to school wearing his father's boots, because his own fell apart. Other people's reactions to his boots reveal their own ideas of superiority. The events in the story center not only on pride, but on people failing to understand each other and lacking the desire to try (this can stem from pride too, an egotistical assumption that your own thoughts and feelings automatically trump someone else's); I also don't think there's a single moment of helpful, or at least non-harmful, speech in this story. Weep, weep, weep.