Short Stories Galore: Carol Shields, Henry James, Andrew Holleran, James Purdy, Ursula K. LeGuin, Dorothy Parker

Love so Fleeting, Love so Fine” by Carol Shields

WENDY IS BACK! the sign said. It caught his eye.

A sign in an orthopedic shoe store captures a man’s attention. He speculates on what the sign means: who is Wendy? where has she been? why is her return so worthy of notice? He creates a vision of Wendy, the woman behind the sign. His version of her, while entirely of his own invention, becomes as real to him as his own, flesh and blood wife. For a time he cannot get Wendy out of his mind, even dreaming about her after wishing his wife good night.

We learn that Wendy is the third woman he has invented and fallen in love with. The previous two also began as printed three word messages he caught a glimpse of and then grew into similar obsessions. So long, Louise. Hank loves Sherri. Love So Fleeting, Love So Fine is a very short story, but it is a haunting one. I suspect many people have caught a glimpse of someone and created, however briefly, a romantic narrative around that person. How far removed are we from making up someone based on a three word sign? Is all that separates us from that a lack of imagination?

“The Tree of Knowledge” by Henry James

I have long been intimidated by Henry James. It took some doing to get a master’s degree in English literature with a focus on Victorian era novels and not have to read Henry James, but I did it. Look at the opening sentence from this short story and I think you can see why I find him intimidating:

It was one of the secret opinions, such as we all have, of Peter Brench that his main success in life would have consisted in his never having committed himself about the work, as it was called, of his friend, Morgan Mallow.

Can you blame me for shying away from his novels. Imagine 100’s of pages like that. It’s even written in the passive voice! But, I thought a short story, maybe I could read a short story by Henry James. There’s one in this old anthology I have and it’s only 11 pages. So I gave “The Tree of Knowledge” a try and I’m very glad that I did.

I would not describe it as easy reading, but it is well worth the effort. The story consists of Peter Brench, who is in love with a married woman, the wife of his friend Morgan Mallow. Brench plainly sees that Mrs. Mallow is in love with her husband and that he has no chance with her, but he wants to remain as close to her as possible. So he remains friends with her husband and becomes god father to their one son. Over the years Morgan Mallow continues his efforts at sculpture, filling his house and gardens with statues that he cannot sell. Peter Brench plainly sees that the statues are awful but he plays along for Mrs. Mallow’s sake; she continuously heaps praise on the statues and insists that someday people will recognize her husband’s genius. After many years as a family friend Peter Brench is forced to confront his god son with the truth about his father’s artwork to prevent the young man from giving up Cambridge to go to Paris to become an artist like his father.

I cannot go further without giving away the end except to say that there is a plot twist, that I guessed, and then another plot twist, that I didnt’ guess, which left me a bit breathless once I realize what had been going on for so many years. Can we ever really know what our friends think about us? Do we really want to? A friend of mine deiscribe Henry James as a writer who’ll drop a very small bit of information towards the end of a story which changes your perception of everything that went on before. He does this very well in “The Tree of Knowledge.

If you’re as afraid of Henry James’s novels as I am, try one of his short stories. “The Tree of Knowledge” is excellent and left me with an appetite for more Henry James. I may even give a novel a try sometime.

“Sunday Morning: Key West” by Andrew Holleran

He was sixteen the first time he went — he drove down from a town in north Florida with the boy next door.

Sunday Morning: Key West” by Andrew Holleran gives us the entire lives of two men in an afternoon. The main character, Roger, is visiting his former lover Lee who now runs a restaurant in Key West. The location is important–Key West is the end of the road, the farthest you can drive along the A-1-A and it is here that many men with AIDS went to spend their final days. Both Roger and Lee are HIV positive, though that term was not in widespread use when the story was written.

Roger has made several trips to Key West during his life and he uses this final trip to reminisce about them by talking to Lee and by reviewing Lee’s scrapbooks. We learn that all of Roger’s circle of friends is now gone, that Lee is the only one left. The same can be said for Lee. The story becomes one of survival, two old soldiers left with nothing but each other. Both men come to terms with this during the course of one quiet afternoon.

I found the story oddly comforting and somewhat haunting. It satisfies and stays will you after it’s over.

“Moe’s Villa” by James Purdy

I’ve been aware of James Purdy for many years. His books crop up on store shelves and catalogue listings regularly, intriguing titles, dignified, attractive covers, blurbs from famous people on the backs. But unread by me, I found his name on a list of 100 top Gay/Lesbian novels over on Matt’s blog.

Mr. Purdy’s story “Moe’s Villa,” a story of the American south, can stand alongside the stories of Tennessee Williams, Eudora Wealty, and William Faulkner. Mr. Purdy is almost their contemporary; his story deals with the themes of genteel decay like theirs so often do.

Moe’s Villa” can be seen as what might have happened to Tennessee Williams’s Blanche Debois had she never left her family home Bell Reeve. But told with a much greater sense of humor. Vesta Hawley, probably the last of her line in spite of having a son, has held on to her ancestral home by maintaining a series of affairs with moneyed men who could help her pay the expenses. She has neglected her son, the product of her only marriage which failed, so much so that he has moved in with Moses Sweringen, who lives on the neighboring estate which he maintains by using it as a gambling casino.

One day, Vesta Hawley’s only servant Frau Storeholder, finds a package meant for Vesta’s son that had been put in the attic ten years earlier and forgotten. The package is from the boy’s father and contains a letter expressing his love for his son and what look like several boxes full of rubies. A box of rubies could save Vesta from the banks who hold the mortgages on her house, mortgages she cannot pay. They could change Moe’s life as well. What the boy will do with them, no one is sure. The conclusion, while surprising, is not altogether satisfying.

That said, I did enjoy the story and look forward to reading the rest of the volume. You can find “Moe’s Villa” in Moe’s Villa and Other Stories by James Purdy.

“Darkness Box” by Ursula K Le Guin.

On soft sand by the sea’s edge a little boy walked leaving no footprints. Gulls cried in the bright sunless sky, trout leaped from the saltless ocean. Far off on the horizon the sea serpent raised himself a moment in seven enormous arches and then, bellowing, sank.

Darkness Box” is high fantasy, the story of a boy, the son of a witch, who finds a box washed ashore on the beach. Inside the box is darkness. His mother advises him to keep the box closed, to lock it up tight.

The beach is also the site of a fierce battle. The local prince has fought his brother whom their father banished. The prince fights along side his griffen; victorious, they drive the banished brother’s soldiers back to their boats anchored offshore. The boy sees the prince and decides to give him the box. The witch advises him to keep it locked safely locked up and to reconsider doing further battle against his brother. He tells her that he must give the box to his father as all that is found on the beach belongs to him. She warns him again that he will go into battle once too often and that he has a choice, just as his brother did. He does not have to obey his father’s every word.

Darkness Box” is an excellent tale. It has magic, fantastic creatures, mystery, battle scenes, sadness and wonder. If you are not a lover of fantasy novels, a short story may be just the thing for you. It’s like taking a bite from a friend’s dessert plate, tasty but not too much of something you find too rich for you.

Big Blonde” by Dorothy Parker

Hazel Morse was a large, fair woman of the type that incites somemen when they use the word “blonde” to click their tongues and wag their heads rouguishly.

CJ and I are both big fans of Dorothy Parker. Ask either of us and we’ll tell you she still has not gotten her due. Many people have argued this before me, all to no avail. Her work seems so slight: funny poetry, collections of short stories and essays. Too many people believe that one has to write a great novel to be a great writer. So Dorothy Parker becomes something of a curio, a clever wit who’s often quoted but seldom read. Half of the people who know her name know her life rather than her work. Her life was certainly interesting; her work deserves more respect than it typically gets.

Dorothy Parker’s long short story “Big Blonde” is probably one of her best. The story concerns Hazel Morse, a jazz age good-time girl. Hazel spends her time in bars and nightclubs where she can always be counted on when you’re looking for some fun. Her looks are nothing to brag about, but she entertains everyone with her sparkling energy and her good humor. No one can feel down when Hazel is around; she is always the life of the party, and her life is basically one big party.

Until the day she marries and becomes a home maker. Then she wants nothing more than to keep house, but her new husband married her for the good times she promised. After a few years, he leaves her for another woman and she has to find some way to continue. There’s nothing for her to do but find another man, so she must become the life of the party again. She moves through a series of men who fall for her when she’s happy and leave her when her mood turns serious or sour.

You can find “Big Blonde” in The Portable Dorothy Parker edited by Marion Meade. The inside flap quotes one of Ms. Parker’s poems and sums up the themes in “Big Blonde” nicely:

Drink and dance and laugh and lie,
Love, the reeling midnight through
For tomorrow we shall die!
(But, alas, we never do.)

These reviews all first ran on my old blog Ready When You Are, C.B. back in 2008 as part of Short Story September on of my first attempts at running a reading challenge.  At the time, blog posts about short stories were very few and far between.  Things are better now.

2 thoughts on “Short Stories Galore: Carol Shields, Henry James, Andrew Holleran, James Purdy, Ursula K. LeGuin, Dorothy Parker

  1. I read Henry James’ “The Tree of Knowledge” as part of the 2012 iteration of my Deal Me In project. I only posted about it briefly (coincidentally my thoughts on it were also part of a multi-story post which also included an Ursula Le Guin story). Your commentary is more complete than mine, but I suspect our reactions to the James story were similar. Reading your post has made me want to revisit the story.

    My old post, if you’d care to view, is at

    1. Since the time of the review above, I grown very fond of James’ short stories. I still haven’t plunged into a novel, but I read several of his short stories a year.

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