Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Eight stories of Americans making journeys

Title: Going After Cacciato
Author: Tim O’Brien
Where I Read It: Breaking Into Print

A soldier stationed in Vietnam decides to walk to France. Other members of his squad try to stop him. Cacciato has a reputation for being dim-witted (a "rockhead," he's called), and his idea is absurd, but at the same time it doesn't seem all that crazy to try to get away, no matter how. The way they've been living so far, with comrades dying in gruesome ways and days full of pointlessness and ugly nonsense, it doesn't seem that crazy for someone to want to walk off into the distance. But that would be desertion, and the rest of them can't let him do that, can they?

O'Brien later developed this story into a novel, which I haven't read, but already in this story he fleshes out distinct characters - some petty and eager to kill, others more sympathetic and thoughtful.

Title: The Halfway Diner
Author: John Sayles
Where I Read It: American Voices

A group of women makes a round-trip by bus each Sunday to visit their men at a state penitentiary. The diner is the halfway point on the trip.

The bus is their world in this story. The women break into different groups, sometimes forming friendships, but what happens in the prison may affect their own relationships. To what extent will they take up the battles between their men and reenact it among themselves? The story unfolds through the eyes of one of the Latinas - who has a well-written voice - and I love how the inside of that bus becomes an entire world, and so does the dismal diner. Sayles also has a gift for writing female characters as realistic people, instead of walking bundles of cliches (the same holds true in what I've watched of his movies so far - Passion Fish and The Secret of Roan Inish).

Title: It Only Comes Out at Night
Author: Dennis Etchison
Where I Read It: The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories

Road trip nightmare. A husband and wife (the wife already feeling unwell) drive through the Southwest US, in a desert region that plays tricks on the mind, especially at night. Who knows when they'll come across the next motel. (Even if this wasn't written in the 1970s, you could picture them minus a phone or good reception, or with drained phone batteries. Imagine them alone on a trip to who knows where.) They find a rest stop. All the other cars parked there are blanketed in dust. The wife gets out to use the bathroom, the husband gets out too, and he returns to the car when he thinks his wife does. He also thinks he sees something out of the corner of his eye.

Title: Looking for Mr. Green
Author: Saul Bellow
Where I Read It: American Short Stories Since 1945

The main character is distributing relief checks in Chicago during the Great Depression. It isn’t a line of work he ever thought he’d be in, with his background as an instructor in the classics, but he needs a job so this will do, and he’ll try to do it well.

It’s difficult work, as people mistrust him (especially as a white guy moving about the South Side), and they aren’t always at their addresses. His main quest in the story is to locate a Mr. Green. I like how the story follows the twisting streets and heads into a warren of homes, some of the homes springing out of the recent ruins of other homes or melting away off the grid. Much has fractured and fissioned. It's hard to pinpoint where people live, as they flicker from one address to another (or die or disappear). There are connections between people that the main character can't access, and the identifying information he works with is inadequate. He feels his way along the fragile links between people and wonders about the Mr. Green that exists not only on paper.

Title: The Oranging of America
Author: Max Apple
Where I Read It: American Short Stories Since 1945

This is a very American story - a businessman who's made it big in cheap motels and restaurants traveling the country in a limo to scout out new sites, and having a sixth sense - an indefinable feel for the land - as he decides on the best places to plant new motels. The story has the feel of a pioneer folk tale from an earlier century, which is part of what makes it funny. It's also touched with sadness, as the characters realize the world is changing, they're getting older, and death is creeping closer. (I imagine if they could, they'd set up an orange-roofed motel in the land of the dead.)

The businessman is Howard Johnson (Max Apple's take on the real-life Howard Johnson), and he travels with his indispensable secretary, Millie, and his chauffeur, Otis, who also taste tests ice cream flavors for him. If they were to die halfway through the story, there would soon be sightings of a ghost limo floating around the US. They'd keep going, and they wouldn't even need cryogenics.

Title: Puttermesser: Her Work History, Her Ancestry, Her Afterlife
Author: Cynthia Ozick
Where I Read It: Legal Fictions

This story is a sharp, rich character study, with a comedic tone and a bitter flavor. Puttermesser is a female lawyer at a time when female lawyers were less common, and part of the story involves her career path, from a blueblood private firm in NYC (where as a woman and a Jew she isn't going to advance) to city government, which has its own forms of inertia. The story also takes her on a different, more private path. Through a dream, she forms a connection to an uncle who had died before she was born. She appears to attach herself to the idea of him. In a scene that's imagined but is more real than her day job, she travels to Staten Island and takes Hebrew lessons from him. (She studies Hebrew grammar on her own, but in the vision involving her uncle she has what's missing in her life - a firm place in a culture and a tangible connection to an ancestor.)

What strikes the richest chords in the story are an imagined future and an idea of the past. Her imagined future is an afterlife full of contemplation, learning, and sweets, and the past is an uncle she never met who belonged to a shul that's lost all its congregants. Whoever is narrating Puttermesser's life observes her as if she's in a world inside a jar.

Title: Them Old Cowboy Songs
Author: Annie Proulx
Where I Read It: Fine Just the Way It Is: Wyoming Stories 3

Stories of successful 19th century settlers populating the West are an important part of American culture. There's a romantic feel to these stories of cabin-building, farm and ranch work, and survival in the face of long odds. Proulx in this story focuses on some who didn't survive.

A novel's worth of setting and character-building go into "Them Old Cowboy Songs," and Proulx's writing is visceral. The details are devastating. Rounding up horses in a frozen swamp, giving birth alone in a stifling hot cabin, too far from the nearest town where people wash up, some finding a life for themselves, others dying and most forgotten. It's a tale of those who weren't victorious. They had names and hopes. They just didn't make it.

Title: The Wife of His Youth
Author: Charles W. Chestnutt
Where I Read It: Great American Short Stories: From Hawthorne to Hemingway

In the years after the Civil War, Mr. Ryder has risen to prominence in a community of largely light-skinned and free-born black/bi-racial people in Groveland, a northern city. The community he associates with is known as the "Blue Veins Society." At the next society ball, he plans to deliver a speech and propose to a woman he's been courting, who's from DC. He's making progress towards even greater social success.

Shortly before the ball, an old black woman appears at his house; she would never be invited to the Blue Veins, except maybe as a servant at one of their functions. She's a former slave, now working as a cook, and has been searching for 25 years for her husband; she hopes Ryder can help her. In speaking with her, Ryder considers his social position and the stratification of people based on physical features, wealth, and education. He also needs to confront the principle of being true to oneself - all of the self, even the parts that have seemed unimportant or undesirable, but can't be ignored.