Monday, September 23, 2019

Six Short Stories Showing Professional Decline (or Failure)

Title: The Colonel's Foundation
Author: Louis Auchincloss
Where I Read It: Legal Fictions

What I remember of this story... the main character is a lawyer who belongs to his firm's founding family. Unlike the people who currently run the firm, he isn't shark-like and aggressive; he's more of a gentleman lawyer. To show his colleagues and bosses that he isn't useless, that he can pull his own weight in a cut-throat environment, he takes the case of an eccentric old man who wishes to set up a foundation as part of a will. Things don't go as planned, in this wry story of greed, blindness, and a desperation to prove oneself.

Title: Dark Matter
Author: Martin J. Smith
Where I Read It: Orange County Noir

He reached into the pocket of his robe. When he pulled it out, I saw something black in his hand and swallowed hard. Who carries a gun in their bathrobe?
The narrator serves eviction notices and is now in a house on Balboa Island (in Southern California) where a washed-up rock star lives. The rock star invites him into a world of tremendous dysfunction, including a dead groupie in a bath tub and a tiger on the loose. Just a freaky little story about decaying celebrities and the people they bring down with them.

Title: Of the Cloth
Author: William Trevor
Where I Read It: The Hill Bachelors

The dream came often and he knew it did so because the past was never far from his thoughts. He knew, as well, that the pages could not be turned back, that when the past had been the present it had been uneasy with shortcomings and disappointments, injustice and distress.
Reverend Grattan Fitzmaurice oversees a declining Protestant church in Ireland (a denomination called the Church of Ireland). He notes without apparent resentment that a nearby Catholic church seems lively enough; the story eventually mentions the child abuse scandals, but at this point the damage to the church's popularity and overall participation isn't noticeable.

Fitzmaurice and his Catholic counterpart don't interact until the death of Con Tonan, a Catholic man who used to work for years in Fitzmaurice's rectory garden. Fitzmaurice attends Tonan's funeral, and later that evening a Catholic priest visits him for a chat. The story portrays peaceful resignation and the realization people sometimes have about the purpose of their lives. For Fitzmaurice it may not have been anything grand, but it meant something – his greatest mission in life may have been to help his Catholic gardener. ("He had never thought of Con Tonan in his garden as a task he'd been given, as a single tendril of the vine to make his own.") Maybe he couldn't sustain the entirety of his congregation, but he was good to someone in apparently small ways that were still important.

The story's atmosphere is a part of its beauty. Making his way through a dark garden, during the evening of his day and of his profession, Grattan Fitzmaurice thinks of Ireland as a whole and finds in his love of it some more common ground to share with the priest:
They loved it [Ireland] in different ways: unspoken in the dark, that was another intimation. For Grattan there was history's tale, regrets and sorrow and distress, the voices of unconquered men, the spirit of women as proud as empresses. For Grattan there were the rivers he knew, the mountains he had never climbed, wild fuchsia by a seashore and the swallows that came back, turf smoke on the air of little towns, the quiet in long glens. The sound, the look, the shape of Ireland, and Ireland's rain and Ireland's sunshine, and Ireland's living and Ireland's dead: all that.
Fitzmaurice, a relic in some ways, is a part of this greater landscape.

Title: Prince of Darkness
Author: J.F. Powers (James Farl Powers)
Where I Read It: American Short Stories Since 1945

Another story with priests! I didn't think I'd find it fascinating to read about a priest who wants his own parish, but the story held my interest. This priest has an image of himself as a rebel or nonconformist of sorts, not always tactfully holding his tongue or pandering to his superiors. However, at a crucial moment, he behaves deferentially. And his 'rebel' stance is really about getting a reaction out of his colleagues, rather than an expression of deeply held principles; he isn't trying to change anything for the better. To parishioners he's indifferent, dismissive in the confessional, and he lives to cater to his soft appetites and to find a cushy position. This selfish, soft, insubstantial character represents some of the deeper problems in the priesthood, including a contempt for female parishioners in particular and an embroilment in petty politics and status-seeking.

Title: The Psychologist Who Wouldn't Do Awful Things to Rats
Author: James Tiptree Jr. (Alice Sheldon)
Where I Read It: The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories

Tilman is a psych researcher in an animal lab. His colleagues treat the animals like machines they're breaking apart into components, and it doesn't matter how cruel they are if the cruelty serves science. Tilman, in contrast, has a set of rats he's breeding, and his work involves observing their behavior; he feels kindly towards his rodents and wouldn't try to remove various parts of their nervous system or other organs.

This approach is looked down on, and the head of the department subtly threatens Tilman's career, telling him that his work is too vague. And while Tilman is a gentle guy, there are some hints early in the story of darkness in him, when he contemplates some of his colleagues and students, particularly the ones who are female. Tilman's career changes - some would say for the better - after he drinks absinthe. Crude misogyny and a complete indifference to animal life make him a new scientist ready to impress his boss. (Could he have stuck with his original line of work? He loved pursuing questions, and he was patient. But he gives up in the face of the pressure, and the humanity drains from him.)

Title: Willing
Author: Lorrie Moore
Where I Read It: The Art of the Story

She was unequal to anyone’s wistfulness.
Sidra is an actress whose career has gone nowhere. She abandons her life (in the sense that she lets it run away from her), and it begins in some ways to resemble her roles in its cheapness, aimlessness, and tawdry confrontations with a guy she's sleeping with and doesn't love. Part of what's interesting about this story is how its voice and its main character grab your attention, but once your attention is held, you wonder what it is you're looking at, other than a trainwreck of a human life.