Review of The
Collected Stories Of Evan S. Connell
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 2/24/06
Evan S. Connell is best known for his novels Mrs. Bridge, Mr. Bridge, and his non-fiction account of General George Armstrong Custer, Son Of The Morning Star, as well as two book-length ‘poems’, Notes From A Bottle Found On The Beach At Carmel, and Points For A Compass Rose, yet he also has written a number of short stories, fifty-six of which are collected in The Collected Stories Of Evan S. Connell. As might be expected from such a collection, they are decidedly hit and miss
The stories range in length from several dozen pages long to only two or three. Invariably, the stronger work is found in the shorter, more compressed and poetic prose of the shorter stories. Connell does not have a natural poetic ability with words or imagery along the lines of a Herman Hesse, Loren Eiseley, nor even someone like a Wallace Stegner, and he does not have as tightly wrought narrative style as a John Cheever, Richard Yates, or J.D. Salinger. This is both a blessing and a curse. He does have a number of stories that feature recurring characters, such as insurance salesman Karl Muhlbach, Leon and Bébert, and lonely writer wannabe William Koerner (Connell’s alter-ego), but these are usually the longer, more flaccid stories. Connell is better when he is describing a moment, rather than a series of events.
For example, the first story in the book, Arcturus- a Muhlbach tale, has some wonderful moments in it, of gazing up at the heavens, which allows Connell some rhapsodizing. But, the tale ultimately loses the reader by focusing too much on the results of a party rather than the relationships between the guests, as his wife has fallen ill even as her former lover is among the guests. A similar problem befalls the much shorter story, A Cottage Near Twin Falls. This tale is a William Koerner one, which satirizes modern literary manners at cocktail parties. The problem is that most readers of the tale are so utterly familiar with the types that there is little to laugh at. Ok, prigs and boors abound- so what? Connell offers nothing but the old stereotypes,
Yet, in one of the shortest stories in the book, The Giant, he provides a party conversation between two philosophic types that soars, feels real and unforced, and ends with an excellent ‘moment’:
Often when a party was ending there would come a strange and unfortunate time: Alden invariably stayed to the last and hunted the center of the dwindling crowd as though he wished to preserve it; yet each time he located it and insinuated himself into its center it dissolved like a cluster of organisms seen under a microscope that are touched by a needle- the components swam away, recreating their unity somewhere else, leaving him once again outside, gazing upon them in silence.
What a great way to describe loneliness and isolation. We’ve all seen those Junior High School films of cells rushing away from a needle’s end.
Where Connell is not as strong is when he is self-consciously trying to be ‘experimental. In Octopus, The Sausalito Quarterly of New Writing, Art & Ideas, he, as in A Cottage Near Twin Falls, tries to have fun with the world of Academic writing, only to fall flat. It makes some good points about the dilettante types who start such projects, and their pitfalls, but too often falls into banality and loses focus. In short, the tale never should have been published in such a magazine in the first place. The very next tale, Bowen, continues the tale started in Octopus, The Sausalito Quarterly of New Writing, Art & Ideas, but is even worse as its lead character commits suicide when he feels his ‘genius’ isn’t being recognized and rewarded. How Connell could have thought this tale or character was fresh is one of those things that I never understand, for the story is a thin raft of the worst clichés.
So much for ‘experimenting’ and its successes. Another failure is in the tale Lion, which is a short, single sustained attempt at stream of consciousness writing, but bogs down in more trite dream imagery. At The Crossroads, the very next tale, is likewise a very tight tale, which follows the last moments of a dying baglady’s life. But, because it focuses on those moments, then draws back to a revery of the woman’s youth, there is the effect of almost a magical realistic moment that few tales of Magical realism achieve. A similar tack is used in I Came From Yonder Mountain, but to achieve a beautiful, yet eerie, effect.
Another story that follows a writer, this time a poet named Angus, is On The Via Margutta. In it, we actually get some insight behind the clichés- on why Angus loathes a rival and loves a certain woman. But, although barely three pages long, the piece then tanks with a weak and trite end, as the woman tricks the dimwitted poet into an avoidance of his amorous pursuits:
Giulietta then walked into the bedroom where she wakened Stu Embry. Together they carried Angus to the couch. Giulietta pulled off his badly worn shoes, loosened his necktie and his belt, and covered him with a blanket. He was already asleep.
In the morning, as soon as he awoke, Angus wrote a poem.
Instead of a real revelation, or something that flowed logically from the events that led up to that moment, Connell opts for the easy out, as well as the trite one.
Yet, he is also capable of truly great prose and stories. The best story in the book, Filbert’s Wife, is a short, poetic meditation on grief, as the titular character is shown in deep despair. We later learn, visa flashbacks, that he is a recent widower, and the tale ends back on his desolation in the rain. It is marvelous, not trite, and quite spare and focused, the way the best writing- prose or poetry- is. Yet, that is countered by a bad Koerner tale called The Cuban Missile Crisis, in which nuclear war and death are laid open to the most trite observations. Had this been written shortly after the events described one might be willing to overlook the piece’s flaws, but the date of writing is given as 1993- over thirty years later! To not have brought even minimal perspective on such an event is baffling. Such is not the case in The Marine, where, in a military hospital, an amputee marine captain, who’s a veteran of Guadalcanal, tells a Navy pilot about a Marine, who thought the bodies of the men he killed belonged to him, decapitated them and stole their gold teeth. As he finishes his anecdote, and wonders what such a thing means, he finds that the pilot has been sleeping all along. The metaphor is striking and deep, and given that tale was written in 1966 it makes one wonder just when Connell may have run out of artistic gas, and just what any of that might have to do with ceaseless experimentation in forms well beyond his artistic powers.
A particularly bad tale is Nan Madol, written in 1992, where a young man in San Francisco is visited by his elderly Midwestern uncle, a retired history professor. The old man is a mannerist of the worst sort, and the young man loathes him, especially when he puts on the airs in front of the man’s girlfriend. This is worth three or four paragraphs, but gets over fifteen pages or writing. Like most writers, Connell is at his worst when he damns concision, and that usually frees up the worst caricatures his mind can concoct, rather than real people. In a sense, concision allows Connell to focus on the particulars that separate rather than the generalities that are common. Thus, concision allows him the human, where lengthier pieces damn him to triteness in tale and character. The worst examples of this trend are the execrable Leon and Bébert tales- sort of tenth rate beckett-like caricatures whose very tales have no real heart nor purpose. The two buffoons are hedonists who practice anomy as a virtue in their wealthy lakeside community. This is not satire, because Connell has not the concision nor wit to pull the characters off: they prattle on about the most trivial and shallow matters, till one is sick of them. They are good for a page’s worth of attention, not the handful of lengthy tales they despoil.
Another factor to consider is that for several decades Connell didn’t write short stories, and he may have simply ‘lost it’ in the interim. Nonetheless, there are enough glimpses of excellence for me to recommend a reader to peruse the book, but to do so with the knowledge that if you’re not grabbed by a page into a tale it’s alright to skip to the next one. That seems to be the modus operandi Connell operated in while writing them, after all, so like deserves like, right?
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Laura Hird website.]
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