THE DEATH of the short story was monotonously predicted for a number of years. Bad symptoms: difficult to place; a non-seller; a small audience. Yet it has not only survived; in its own context, it has flourished. Demonstrably one of the most difficult forms, it demands the concentration and penetrative power we associate with poetry, and characterization more immediate and intense than that required by the novel. Style is crucial, and the writer cannot be permitted the calculated pauses and alterations of tempo possible to longer fiction.
The stories in Joan Williams' Pariah are, in general, concerned with aspects of loneliness--the loneliness of hopeless poverty; of the feeble-minded; of the parent in the child-abandoned house; of the old. There are so many good things to say about Pariah that any churlish cavilling should be disposed of first.
These are the short stories of a novelist--and we know that Williams has fine novels to her credit (County Woman, most recently). The sparkle, the tension and stress of the best short story styles are lacking. Often there is a flatness in the telling; often the climax is avoided--is told about, rather than experienced. We are allowed to make a few discoveries for ourselves, and surprises are minimal. Expository passages surface frequently. A mother, alienated from the daughter who can't get away too quickly after her conscience- promoted visits, reflects: "We worked so she wouldn't have to, and it's the thing that has drawn us apart. She can't understand my way; and I've never known hers." The climax of an excellent story, "No Love for the Lonely," is rapidly and distantly summed up: "He saw by her face that she understood life was withholding this last promise as it had withheld so many others: and it was all too good to be true." Even the stories' titles share this expository quality; "Pariah," "Going Ahead," "No Love for the Lonely." Based on familiar and indestructible themes, the stories suffer from the reader's inability to approach those themes in a contagion of new vision.
Too often, peripheral characters stray in and out again, posing problems. The whistling grandson who passes the house daily, in "Vistas," is never related to the story's theme, though it is obvious he is part of it. In "Pariah," we never know whether the hostility and repugnance of the husband and daughter toward the alcoholic protagonist are cause, or effect; in "Vistas," whether there ever was a relationship between mother and daughter.
This carping over, the fact remains that Pariah is eminently worth reading. It has irreplaceable qualities: a deep humanity; acute observation; a dignity of stature. Integrity and wholeness of concept are never sacrificed for the quick effect. And a number of the stories manage a deep pathos, unsmeared by the slightest sentimentality. Williams has that gift indispensable to the fiction writer--a genuine ear for dialogue. The just-moved-in neighbor, asked how she likes it here, responds, "Fine, ma'am. I like it fairly much. Soon's we get straightened, that is." A new widower, lonely and hungry, visits a solitary spinster. "His nose was tickled by the smell of the tiny rambler-roses growing over Hattie's fence. He broke off a branch and went up to her porch . . . When he presented the flowers, she said, 'Looks like that late-blooming rambler down by my gate, don't it?' and tucked the branch into a milk bottle already full of them."
The book's two finest stories, "The Sound of Silence," and "Jesse," deal with common experience--the former with the first day of a retarded son after his mother's death; the latter with the moving, too-late effort of a share-cropper, drained by the long crises of poverty, to change his life into another mold. It is in these stories that the simplicity and directness of Joan Williams' style are most effective. Jesse's is a memorable story. He manages to escape despair--indeed, to end on a note of strength drawn from deep within. Perhaps even better is "The Sound of Silence," with its splendid scene in the house now deserted by the kindly and officious mourners, gone, with their food and their real but shallow sympathy. Jake and Jurldeane--Jurldeane, "your momma's wash girl"--sit opposite each other, eating and drinking the cake and milk left behind, while his desolation and her passionate pity, full of wisdom and helplessness, hang over them in the southern night. Unable to teach him to light and extinguish the lamp, she arranges a candle in its own wax, and shows him how to blow it out. As she turns down the wick bit by bit, comfort is leaving him. "But suddenly she stopped when (the lamp) was almost out. They were still looking at each other, their faces shadowed with the wick's final fluttering. 'I don't want to,' she said, 'but I got to.' Then she blew out the wick, and they were alone by the thin light of the candle. He knew that now she was going. She stood in the doorway and looked back at him. 'Get into bed now,' she said. 'Blow out that candle.' "
The nuances of bigotry; the maddening blend of kindness and cruelty in the naive; the everyday, non-violent, non-sensational atmosphere of southern living, are evoked in Joan Williams' stories as naturally as weather moves through the day.