The Suit: For this year’s Deal Me IN, Clubs is my suit for “Legendary” Indiana Authors
The Selection: “The Beautiful Lady” (actually more of a novella than a short story, but it was too late to change now! J
The Author: Booth Tarkington of Indianapolis. One of the standard bearers of The Golden Age of Indiana Literature. He also won the Pulitzer Prize. Twice.
What is Deal Me “IN” 2016? I’m glad you asked! Before the start of each year, I come up with a list of 52 stories to read and assign each of them to a playing card in a standard deck. Each week, I draw a card, and that is the story I read. By the end of the year (52 weeks), I’m done, and ready to start a fresh deck. (For a more detailed explanation of the Deal Me In challenge, see the sign up post. For a look at my deck of cards/storyroster click here.) Since 2016 is my home state’s bicentennial, in this year’s edition of my annual Deal Me In challenge, I’m reading only stories that have an Indiana “connection” of some kind. Deal Me “IN” is also now officially endorsed as a “Legacy Project” by The Indiana Bicentennial Commission.
The Beautiful Lady
“To fall in love must one behold a face? Yes; at thirty. At twenty, when one is something of a poet No: it is sufficient to see a grey pongee skirt! At fifty, when one is a philosopher No: it is enough to perceive a soul! I had done both; I had seen the skirt; I had perceived the soul.”
Just the quotation above should be enough to let you know what kind of story this will be, but I will drone on a little more about it… The narrator of the story is a man of twenty-four who is down on his luck in Paris. He has a half-brother who is seemingly a villain. He had a “full” brother who is now dead and whose two children the narrator tries his best to support and pay for their schooling at a nunnery. The beginning of the story finds him so penniless (franc-less?) that he has accepted a humiliating job for the term of a week. The job is to be a living advertisement for a theater and consists of him having to shave his head bald, allowing an advertisement to be painted on the top of his head, then to sit at the venue with his eyes pointing to his lap so passersby will see the ad and perhaps be curious enough to buy a ticket. He hates it. You probably would too.
One solace he has is that the act of shaving his head bald adds years to his appearance, making him seem as if “a man of forty.” He hopes this will lead to no one recognizing him on the street to observe his humiliation. One day, the appearance “upon the lid of my lowered eyelid” of a beautiful grey pongee skirt (yeah, I had to look that up) is what sets this story ablaze. The wearer of the Pongee skirt (the Beautiful Lady of the story’s title, naturally) is accompanied by a young man who pauses to laugh at the narrator. She is shocked and sympathetic. “Ah!” she cried. “The poor man!” Her voice:
“…was North-American. Ah, what a voice! Sweet as the mandolins of Sorento! Clear as the bells of Capri! To hear it, was like coming upon sight of the almond-blossoms of Sicily for the first time, or the tulip-fields of Holland. Never before was such a voice.”
The narrator doesn’t see the lady during this “encounter” but perhaps will again during his next “job.” For my part, I loved this story. It was a bit predictable in its plot twists, which honestly stretched credibility to its seams, and also in its saccharine sweetness, which makes my admission of liking it something of a guilty pleasure, I suppose. It made me think of times in my own life where things weren’t going as I hoped or maybe when I was “ashamed” of a current employment or living status, and doesn’t it always seem to work out that you run into people you haven’t seen in a long time when you’re looking – or at – your worst? I believe Tarkington captures this phenomenon nearly perfectly in this story, which is one of my favorites of Deal Me “IN” this year.
What have you read by Tarkington? The Magnificent Ambersons? Alice Adams? Some of his shorter works? I’d love to hear about your encounters with this author.
Next up in Deal Me “IN” 2016: Selection #49: “Fort Wayne is Seventh on Hitler’s List” by Michael Martone. (I’ve been wondering all year what this story is about…)