"THE AUTHOR," so the jacket copy tells us, "is an assiduous collector of historical absurdities, coincidences, contradictions, artifices, outrages and insanities over which the protagonist ruminates mournfully while remaining partially paralyzed in the present -- in short, contemporary man at an eternal crossroads seeking direction."
Accurate enough. But this book of stories has better to offer the reader than mournfully ruminating, partially paralyzed protagonists. And if any author can be summed up "in short," it would be better not to admit it -- let alone actually tell us how.
The jacket copy might instead have praised what Evans S. Connell does best: see and write. Regard the character, "almost black in the manner of a sweat-stained saddle," who was "something of a dandy. . . . For a shirt he wore long-sleeved white silk unbuttoned to below the level of his nipples which themselves were vaguely visible. The hair of his chest was so luxuriant that an enameled crucifix there did not even rest on the skin." That last sentence could stand alone as a textbook on the art of description.
Connell can encapsulate a character wonderfully: "She was married to the mortician, an extremely tall man named Knopf who liked to underline trenchant phrases in the little books on Success that you buy for a quarter."
He can describe even dusk -- "Chill as any stone, the sun sinks through cloudy folds, through antennae and chimneys" -- as though no one had ever seen dusk before. And perhaps no one ever has, in exactly this way; but now some reader, somewhere, will. Here is the magic through which words ennoble our mute experience.
It's sad that this wonderful style so often sinks into pedantry and a kind of hypersensibility. "The sun obtrudes, strange fruit in the western quadrant, viable," is a strained way to suggest the approach of spring. A single story finds it necessary to employ the words lentiginous, ferruginous, vesicant, bobbery, epicene, decoctions, and albify.
The best of these stories are wonderful. "The Fisherman from Chihuahua" concerns a restaurant owner in California who develops a peculiar dependence on one of his patrons -- a Mexican who howls. "The Caribbean Provedor" is set in a tropical port; the viewpoint character gets into trouble when he allows himself to be mistaken for an official investigator.
The people are real, the places are real. What happens is absolutely clear. But beneath their taut surfaces, both stories leave mysteries, letting their imaginary worlds run deep. One rereads them with added pleasure, and part of that pleasure is in not stroking bottom.
Not so with others of these 16 stories. The jacket copy tells the truth, which it wrongly conceives as flattering: Many of the stories do invite interpretation "in short," and to this extent they are scarcely stories at all. Rather they are meditations on ideas.
Fiction can digest ideas. But the organ that absorbs them is character, and too often Connell cares more for the thought than for the thinker. Thus the protagonist will be assigned such a passage of analysis as this:
"I accept the madness of our time, he thinks. Each age does produce its folly -- some scheme, project, or fantasy toward which the blood drains -- economic, political, religious. Always. Panniers of mold from the bill of the Crucifixion, flagons of water from Jordan. There is testimony to the madness of an earlier age, but is ours more sapient?"
Obviously, this is not real thought. It is not even plausible as stylized thought. It is sheer, barefaced writing, the thing that Connell does do well and it doesn't belong inside his characters' skulls.
Consider the title story, in which ann intellectual widower named Muhlbach has a night on the town. Pursued by lust, meditating on Augustine's Confessions , he suffers a series of stock humilitations, ending with the splat of pigeon excrement on his hat. At the end, in a string of formally articulated thoughts, stubborn Muhlbach realizes that he has been acting the fool.
The heavily labored point is that his insight resembles St. Augustine's. The parallels fall into place obediently. But Muhlbach never becomes human. He is a man snapped together from modules: intellectuality, naivete, lust. He is a head sowed with thematic thoughts.
The final piece is titled "A Brief Essay on the Subject of Celebrity: With Numerous Digressions and Particular Attention to the Actress, Rita Hayworth." And an essay it frankly is. Its appearance in this volume of "selected stories" makes explicit the view of essay-as-fiction that the other stories so often imply.
But perhaps the author is not responsible for this essay's inclusion. According to the title page, the stories were "Edited by Gus Blaisdell." Did Blaisdell select these stories? Arrange them? Rewrite them? For a work of fiction to name its editor is unusual; so must, or should, his contribution have been, and one is left wondering what it was.