WILLIAM HUMPHREY is a writer of considerable, and considerably varied, accomplishment. His books include four excellent novels, the best-known being Home From the Hill and The Ordways; a boyhood memoir, Farther Off From Heaven, which is one of the finest of its genre in American literature; two splendid fishing stories, The Spawning Run and My Moby Dick; a critical study of the role the frontier has played in American writing; and two collections of short stories, the contents of which are republished in this, his 11th book.
Although Humphrey's prose is unfailingly graceful and interesting, the short story is not the form in which he seems most comfortable. While brevity is his style in nonfiction, he apparently wants space in which to stretch when he is writing fiction; in many of these stories he seems cramped, as though he had denied himself the breathing room he really needs and is paying the price as a consequence. The intensity of feeling that he generates in his longer work -- I think in particular of Farther Off From Heaven -- is never fully achieved in the stories; they are etudes, and Humphrey's specialty is the symphony.
The best of them are quite fine, though, and in the best ones Humphrey's admirers will find him working familiar territory with his accustomed skill. The physical territory is Texas and Oklahoma during the Depression; the psychological territory embraces such matters as the relationship between father and son, the bonds of marriage and family, the life of small towns. As in his longer works, Humphrey is concerned in the stories with the gift and denial of love, the decay of the Old South, the shaping effects of hard times; his sympathy for his characters is firm, but so too is his refusal to permit them easy answers or to overlook their innate flaws.
Perhaps the best of all 22 stories, and thematically the most characteristic, is "The Ballad of Jesse Neighbours." Its title character is a 20-year-old Oklahoman, a poor but honorable and hard-working fellow, who aims to marry the beautiful Naomi Childress. He slaves away to provide a dwelling for them -- a condition of her father's consent to the marriage -- and is right on the verge of doing so when oil is struck on the Childress farm. Bull Childress takes his wife and family off to Dallas, and when they return Naomi will have nothing to do with the broken-hearted Jesse; in a desperate effort to accumulate enough wealth to recapture her affections he robs a bank, is caught, and is executed.
HUMPHREY GETS a lot done in the 20 pages of this story. He describes the brutal, suffocating poverty of hardscrabble Oklahoma in mid-Depression; he quickly, expertly creates a memorable character, a decent young man fated to be cheated in love and life; he depicts the corrupting effects of sudden, unearned wealth; he writes a surprisingly affecting elegy to the bygone days of "storied outlaws past and present, of Baby Face Nelson and Dillinger, of Sam Bass and Billy the Kid, and always, here among Jesse's crowd in particular, the word poreboy, a poreboy, sounded, like the bass string which the hand must always strum no matter what the chord, on a guitar." That brief passage is typical of the prose in the story, prose that is almost dreamily evocative yet specific in detail and, where required, humorous. There isn't a better paragraph in the book than this one, which I quote in its full, glorious length:
"The story was told that the well blew in while old Bull was in the outhouse looking at the pictures in the unused pages of the mail-order catalogue, and that when she let go he shot off the hole and out the door with his flap hanging open and his britches down around his knees, tripped and sprawled flat on his face, rolled over, looked up, and then lay there moaning with joy and letting the slimy, thick, foul- smelling black rain spatter in his face and into his mouth like sweet California wine. The roar was a steady explosion and the stink enough to make you gag. Air to breathe there was none and the sky turned black as in a dust storm. And as he lay there Bull's moaning turned insensibly into a whimper, a sob, as he thought of the years of his life that had gone into that hard, unyielding soil, the sweat from his hanging brow that had watered every inch of it, of the furrows he had broken, the cotton sacks he had dragged across it, bent double beneath the broiling sun, the seed he had sown in it and which had rotted there, never sprouting. Of this dry red dirt he had eaten his allotted peck, and no more. His head was bent to it like an ear on an undernourished stalk; his skin had taken on its very color like a stain. And all this while deep underground lay this blactreasure. And rolling over he commenced to beat the earth with his fists for having hidden its riches from him all his life until now. Then when he had exhausted himself beating it, he flung his arms wide in an embrace and kissed the ground again and again."
For me at least that paragraph and the story that contains it are the book's highest moments, but there are others not far short of it. These come in "Quail for Mr. Forester," a wry contemplation of the aforementioned decay of Old Dixie; "Mouth of Brass," a moving but unsentimental story about a white boy's affection for a black man; "The Rainmaker," the amusing account of the trials of a fellow who has a genius for getting himself into trouble. All of these stories take place in the South; when Humphrey shifts his locale to the North, as in "The Last Husband," he seems less sure of himself -- of local customs and characters -- even though his eye for human foible remains clear as ever. These stories you can skip at no great loss; but you owe it to yourself to find half an hour for Jesse Neighbours.