A Few More Short Stories I Read in September

Three more short stories…

I’ve already posted this month about a couple of short stories that I read for my annual project, those being “Reunion” by Maya Angelou and “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut by” J.D. Salinger. My habitual short story schedule is to pick and read one each Saturday morning. There were five Saturdays in September, so what were my other three stories? I’m glad you asked…

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First, I read Margaret Atwood’s “Significant Moments in the Life of My Mother.” Originally published as part of her collection “Bluebeard’s Egg and other Stories,” this was probably my favorite of the three. It reminded me a lot of Marilynne Robinson’s novel, “Gilead,” which I have also read recently. The narrator recalls stories told to her by her mother, and admits that, as a child, she hadn’t yet realized “that she (her mother) never put in the long stretches of uneventful time that must have made up much of her life: the stories were just the punctuation.” I loved that. Aren’t we all, armed with our own stories, just like that as well? I found Atwood’s writing beautiful, and her attempts to explain the difficulty of writing about a past age ring so true. She says, “It is possible to reconstruct the facts of this world – the furniture, the clothing, the ornaments on the mantelpiece, the jugs and basins and even the chamber pots in the bedrooms, but not the emotions, not with the same exactness. So much that is now known and felt must be excluded.” I found this story in my anthology “The World of Fiction” edited by David Madden. A great collection of close to one hundred stories.

(below: Margaret Atwood)

Second, I read a Flannery O’Connor story titled, “Parker’s Back.” What could this story title mean? Some sort of ‘prodigal son returns’ theme I assumed, with Parker being the star. Well, knowing O’Connor I should have know it would be a dark tale, and it was, though not as “bad” as others of hers that I’ve read. We meet O.E. Parker in the midst of a domestic squabble with his wife. I liked the opening sentence: “Parker’s wife was sitting on the front porch floor, snapping beans.” I’ve done that! Several times in my youth while visiting grandparents, a batch of green beans straight from the garden would be distributed amongst a few of us to begin preparing them by breaking them into ‘bite size’ units. A great memory and one that made me feel at home in this story immediately. Of course, that was the only part of the world spun by O’Connor in this story that was comfortable.

(below: Flannery O’Connor)

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The title of the story comes from the fact that Parker is covered in tattoos, but only on his front, his back remains untouched. Self-centered at his core, he has no interest in tattoos on his body that HE can’t see. He came by his obsession by seeing, when a child, a tattooed mad at a carnival whose varied tattoos created a beautifully artistic “arabesque” wrapping his body. Parker’s tattoos are less artful: “Whenever a decent-sized mirror was available, he would get in front of it and study his overall look. The effect was not of one intricate arabesque of colors but of something haphazard and botched.”

Flashbacks tell us the story of how he met his strictly religious wife (she thinks of his tattoos as “Vanity of vanities”) and at the end of the story he finally decides to get a tattoo to cover his back. A tattoo that could not help but please his wife, he thinks. If you’ve read much Flannery O’Connor, you know this won’t turn out well… I found this story in another anthology, The Norton Anthology. One benefit of this anthology is that each story is followed by a handful of ‘discussion questions.’ The one’s following this story weren’t the greatest though, but one did touch on the handling of chronology in the story – how do the glimpses back into the prior lives of the characters add to the story, etc.

The third, which I just finished, from my “Short Story Masterpieces” anthology, was John Cheever’s “Torch Song.” A famous title, and one that I’d certainly heard of, but I had remained ignorant of the work of Cheever (with whom I share the same initials and – I just learned today – birthday) until I read his great short story, “The Swimmer” earlier this year. I really liked this story for the most part, but it turned dark in – I thought – an unpleasant way toward the end. It follows the lives of two friends, Jack and Joan, two New York residents who came there from the same home town in Ohio. I understand the term “torch song” to refer to a love song that laments an unrequited or lost love and perhaps this is indeed the meaning in this story. Jack and Joan were never lovers, yet they crossed paths often in their lives and, as a reader, even though they always seemed married or involved with someone else when they met, I kept thinking, “C’mon, Jack, you should find a way to get together with this girl.” In fact, I was a little reminded by their relationship of the characters Jake and Brett from Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, for whom I had a similar feeling. I was disappointed with the direction that “Torch Song” took, however, and though I found Cheever’s writing to be great (as it was in “The Swimmer”) I didn’t like this story as much as the other two.

(John Cheever)

So, that about wraps up my short story reading in September; only twelve more for me to “deal” with this year now. What short fiction did you consume this month? I’d love to know…

(I participate in The Short Story Initiative hosted by Nancy at Simple Clockwork. If you are a regular – or even occasional – reader of short stories, please check out her site and share with the rest of us what you’ve read.)

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(Pictured below: three of my many short story anthologies; they were already somewhat battered when I bought them second-hand, but some of their condition is due to my frequent use as well…)

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“Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut”

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I admit I somewhat enjoy it when a story has a cryptic title. I’ve read at least two this year with strange names that provided no real clue to what the stories might be about, “The Mutants” by Joyce Carol Oates, “Kaleidoscope” by Ray Bradbury. Then, this weekend when I drew the King of Hearts from my short story deck, I was led to the J.D. Salinger story, “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut.” What the heck could that be about?

A few years back, I purchased a slim paperback volume, “Nine Stories,” by J.D. Salinger. As of this morning, I’ve still only read five of the nine (this is what I tend to do, “ration” stories in a collection out over time, so as to delay that dreaded “they’re all gone” feeling when the supply has been exhausted). The collection was published in 1953, and features some other famous stories, such as A Perfect Day for Bananafish – which I read a couple years ago (and didn’t like) and “For Esme – with Love and Squalor,” which fellow blogger Dale at Mirror with Clouds posted about. When it came time to pick my 52 short stories for this year’s “Project: Deal Me In,” though, I had to include a couple more Salinger stories. This was one of them.

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***spoilers follow***
The story details a visit between two old college friends, Eloise (now married and with an eleven year old daughter, Ramona) and Mary Jane (divorced). A business errand of Mary Jane’s brings her near her old friend’s house so she stops for a visit. Once inside, they “head straight for the liquor cabinet.” Downing highball after highball (over the initial protests of Mary Jane) they begin to commiserate about how their lives have turned out. (Eloise has some harsh things to say about the male of the species too.)

Unhappy in her marriage, Eloise recalls an early love, Walt, a soldier who went off to war and was killed, though not “in action” in the traditional sense. This was a man with the right qualities, the ones that Eloise cherished anyway: a sense of humor and intelligence. It is in Eloise’s relating a story of Walt’s tenderness from their past where we learn the source of the title of this story. Walt comforts an injured Eloise by saying “Poor Uncle Wiggily.”* Eloise describes him: “Ah, God, he was nice. He was either funny or sweet. Not that damn little-boy sweet, either. It was a special kind of sweet.”

This event from the past is somehow linked to Eloise’s dealing with her daughter’s oddness (which includes an imaginary friend and beau, Jimmy Jimmereeno). Early in the story the daughter describes Jimmy to Mary Jane then later goes outside to play. After the adult women have become drunk and the child returns indoors, Eloise asks her, “What happened to Jimmy?” and Ramona replies “He got runned over and killed.”

Eloise sends Ramona to bed after checking her forehead to see if she’s feverish, but is shocked later when she checks on her in bed and finds her lying “way over on one side” of the bed (as she used to do make room for the imaginary Jimmy).

“I thought you told me Jimmy Jimmereeno was run over and. Killed.”
“What?”
“You heard me,” Eloise said. “Why are you sleeping way over here?”
“Because,” said Ramona.
“Because why? Ramona, I don’t feel like-“
“Because I don’t want to hurt Mickey.”
“Who?”
“Mickey,” said Ramona, rubbing her nose. “Mickey Mickeranno.”

Eloise shrieks at Ramona to get in the center of the bed but then finally softens and feels some sympathy for her poor, disturbed girl, holding her glasses from the nightstand and repeating “Poor Uncle Wiggily.” Somehow she has been transported to another time when she herself was a “nice girl” and capable of feeling sympathy and worthy also of receiving it. A time so distant from the present that she weeps. A sad story, but with a kernel of hope at the end(?)

Have you read this Salinger story? What was your take on it? What is your favorite from his collection,”Nine Stories?”

*I discovered in my “research” that “Uncle Wiggily” was a beloved character from a popular series of children’s books from 1910 to about 1940. He was an elderly rabbit, plagued by rheumatism, who encountered and escaped troubles by either his wits or by coincidental good fortune. I’ll have to see if I can find one of the 76(!) books in which he appears.  Have you ever heard of Uncle Wiggily? I hadn’t, but then I wasn’t alive in 1940, or 1950, or 1960, or, well… let’s just say I’m too young to have known about him.  🙂

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