Saturday, September 29, 2018

Four Short Stories Where Underdogs Triumph

Title: The Cambist and Lord Iron
Author: Daniel Abraham
Where I Read It: Fantasy: The Best of the Year 2008

Olaf works as a cambist in an exchange office. He unfortunately attracts the attention of a dissipated, cruel nobleman, Lord Iron, who puts him in an untenable situation that will very likely cost him his life. Olaf succeeds in extricating himself, in this story of wits and courage triumphing over power and cruelty. (Olaf is a fan of adventure novels, but his own story is an even better adventure, and he's a better example of the traits he admires in fictional heroes.)

Title: Lolita
Author: Dorothy Parker
Where I Read It: Mothers & Daughters

A vivacious, petite, and charming woman, Mrs. Ewing, has a daughter named Lolita who appears to be everything her mother isn't. She's shy and quiet; you can fail to notice she's in a room. She's plain and doesn't clean up well. She can't do much around the house. Most people in town kind of pity Mrs. Ewing for having a daughter like that, even if they have nothing against Lolita. But when Lolita gets courted by a handsome, charming man, it becomes apparent that Mrs. Ewing needs her daughter. She needs to compete with her daughter and come out on top, looking more attractive and desirable. Life has less relish when Lolita isn't around to serve as her mother's foil.

This short story came out shortly before Nabokov's novel was released. Parker's Lolita gets a considerably happier ending.

Title: The Revolt of "Mother"
Author: Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
Where I Read It: Great American Short Stories: From Hawthorne to Hemingway

Sarah Penn's husband promised her 40 years ago that she would one day have a real house, not the home that's been crumbling around the family for decades. It's a promise he has never fulfilled, instead providing nicer, newer quarters for the farm animals. At the start of the story he's determined to build another barn. When Sarah lays out her case plainly, he's unmoved. In a poignant moment she retreats to her room, emerges again after a while with red eyes, and resumes her work.

After appearing resigned, she winds up meeting his taciturn obstinacy and callousness with quiet resolve. If her husband is a wall, she finds a clever way around him that works out for everyone. There's a difference between being dutiful and being a doormat, and she knows her own mind and what's right. (Even when a clergyman comes over at once point to advise her against her unorthodox course of action, she remains resolved.) Freeman I suspect was giving Sarah the kind of satisfying outcome that she would have liked more women in the real world to enjoy, should they have been stuck with such a husband.

Title: Triumph of Justice
Author: Irwin Shaw
Where I Read It: Legal Fictions

Mike Pilato wants to receive some money owed to him. He never got the promise of this money in writing, but he doesn't think it should be too hard to go to court without a lawyer and defend his case. Typical court proceedings don't tend to favor people like Mike, who isn't polished and who pronounces Thursday as Stirday. But Mike manages to upend the order of the court for long enough to get a necessary confession. He uses methods that would lead to unjust outcomes in other situations, but here they make sense to him, because someone is brazenly lying. ('Justice' and 'respect for legal proceedings' aren't always the same...) The dialogue is key to the story's humor and keeps the text punchy.