Tim's Reviews > Sixteen Short Novels

Sixteen Short Novels by Wilfrid Sheed
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Jun 26, 2016

it was amazing
Read in June, 2016

The definition of a short novel, as put forth by the editor, Wilfrid Sheed, indicates a length of somewhere between 20,000 and 50,000 words, such that the prose is sparer than for a novel, Also, in this collection, the editor chose more obscure stories by popular authors. So I will be giving brief reviews of the stories as I read ‘em: FYI, I have found that most of these stories are listed and reviewed independently on Goodreads.

1. “Andrea,” by John O’Hara (author of “Butterfield 8” and “From the Terrace,”)-tells of a young woman’s progress from loss of virginity at age 15 through several marriages and affairs, from the point of view of Paul, deflowerer and occasional lover/friend. He describes her as a free spirit, emotionally, socially and sexually, and he is clueless about what’s really going on inside her. Thus the “surprise ending” is a real shocker. Extremely well done.

2. “The Old Maid,” by Edith Wharton (“The Age of Innocence;” “Ethan Frome,”) tells of two cousins and a child born out of wedlock; one cousin gives legitimacy to the child, and the remainder of the story is what happens to the relationship over the next number of years. Sad, hopeful, intriguing.

3. “Tortilla Flat,” by John Steinbeck, who appears to have a fondness for the fishing industry of Southern California, and the colorful characters that people it. The action takes place sometime after World War I. While “Cannery Row” concentrates on the workers, “Tortilla Flat” centers on a group of hoboes in the poor section of Monterey. These are a somewhat diverse lot, who beg, steal, fight, drink, seduce the ladies (sometimes to obtain their wine), and in general lead a shiftless life. I liked the story, even though Mr. Steinbeck came under criticism for alleged racism against poor Mexicans. For me the strength of the relationships among these characters was the theme, which is described very well. This book was made into a movie in the 1940’s, starring Spencer Tracy, John Garfield, Hedy Lamarr and Frank Morgan. Although I liked it, the characters lacked the “edge” of those of the book, and therefore were not as believable. Three stars for the movie, four for the novel.

4. “Mario and the Magician” (1929) by Thomas Mann (“Death in Venice”) is described as an allegory of the coming of Hitler and his mesmerizing seduction of the German populace. The plot involves a German writer and his family on holiday in Italy, staying in a small villa. The small town hosts a performance by “Cippola,” a conjurer, magician and hypnotist. Cippola maintains a ruthless control over the audience and spouts numerous insults to those who volunteer to be his “victims.” The Mario of the title is a kind waiter who becomes quite enraged when Cippola pretends to be a young woman with whom Mario is enamored. The ending is shocking but, in some ways, satisfying. I must admit that I would not have figured out the story’s allegorical nature if I hadn’t re-read that section of the Introduction, or various Internet sites including Wikipedia. I also learned that there is a German-language film from 1994.

5. “Pudd’nhead Wilson,” by Mark Twain, is a combination of social commentary on slavery in small-town Missouri in the 1830’s (the phrase, “Being sold down the river” takes on immediate meaning throughout this tale), intriguing character study, and an early use of fingerprinting. A slave woman, Roxy, switches her child, “Chambers,” with that of her benefactor to give him a better future. “Chambers becomes “Tom Driscoll,” and vice versa. “Tom” becomes a nasty fellow with a sense of entitlement who treats “Chambers” poorly. He’s also a roué and a gambler. The title character, David Wilson, called “Pudd’nhead” after an unfortunate incident, is an attorney by training with a hobby of fingerprinting everyone in the community. Wilson makes his way as a bookkeeper, since no one trusts his legal skills. Actually, Wilson makes only sporadic appearances in this story, making the reader wonder why the title refers to him at all. Ha! He redeems himself, dusting off his legal abilities in defending twin immigrants accused of murdering “Tom’s” uncle, who had taken Tom in after his “father” had died. Thus, the last part of the story is a courtroom drama which I would trust Scott Turow and John Grisham had read in preparation for their own fictional procedurals. I enjoyed this story very much and would recommend it. I was able to obtain a copy of the 1983 TV movie from the Library. It stars Ken Howard ("The White Shadow;" "In Her Shoes"). Follows the story quite well, although condensed. Overall, I'd rate it four stars.

6. “Ward No. 6,” by Anton Chekhov (1892), is a story reminiscent of Solzhenitsyn’s book “The First Circle.” Andrei Yefimich is a physician assigned to a small ward for the insane at a hospital in a small town. Andrei isn’t much of a doctor, letting his assistant do most of the work. However, he does take an interest in the personalities of his patients, especially Ivan Dimitrich Goronov, age 33, formerly a Court process server but now a likeable philosophical ranter. In one of their discussions, Andrei tells Ivan, “Once prisons and insane asylums exist, there must be someone to sit in them.” Andrei becomes more deeply invested in these discussions, to the detriment of his medical duties. He is finally dismissed, with no pension or other benefits, but his friend Mikhail Averyanich, town Postmaster, takes him on a cross-country trip, supposedly to ease his mind; however, Mikhail turns out to be an obnoxious gambler, borrowing all of Andrei’s savings for his debts. Nonetheless, they remain friends, even through Andrei’s process of descent into madness and social isolation. Eventually, he is lured back to the hospital and incarcerated in Ward No. 6. He again meets up with Ivan Dimitrich, who says to him, “Aha, they’ve shut you up here too, darling! I’m very glad. First you drank other people’s blood and now they’ll drink yours. Splendid!” Andrei petitions Nikita, the guard, to go out for a walk and is beaten by Nikita, dying the next day, with Mikhail and Darushka, the cook, the only attendees at his funeral. This was a very engrossing story, of a number of levels, depicting not only the vulnerability of the doctor but also the poor conditions that people with mental illness were put into and treated, and the indifference of the populace and indeed the medical bureaucracy has towards them. Five stars.
This story was made into a Russian movie in 2009. The setting is more contemporary, but the issues remain the same. It’s in the form of a documentary on the hospital and ward, and follows the Andrei and other characters in the novella. I was very impressed at the bleak conditions depicted and the hopelessness of the patients. Andrei’s descent into madness is very well depicted, but there is a major change from the novella, in that Andrei doesn’t die, but recovers from his injuries. The ending scene is of a Christmas party held with the patients from the female ward. One of the women asks Andrei to dance; nice, positive end in a still-depressing environment. I highly recommend it.

7. “Notes from Underground,” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, has been described as “the first existential novel.” I must say that I was quite put off at first, because it read like the political/philosophical ramblings of a 40 year old madman, who was for some 20 years a civil servant but who is now living in idle poverty, having squandered an inheritance. However, that’s only the first half of the story. The rest depicts two events in the narrator’s life when he was in his mid-20’s, which give the reader insight into the protagonist’s personality. One is his attempts to reconcile with several old friends, with disastrous results, due to his egocentric nature, poor judgment, alcohol abuse and virtually no insight. The other entails his relationship with a young prostitute, whom the narrator tries to convince to give up that life and spend it with him. Again, his lack of interpersonal skills, total self-focus and rather mean ways doom what could have been a nice relationship. He learns nothing from these events and ends up sad and lonely without really knowing why. Be patient with the first part and you’ll find a very deep character study.

8. “The Fall, by Albert Camus, a French existentialist and nihilist, describes, in first-person narrative, a narcissistic former attorney who had plied his trade well, but the motive was to heap adulation upon himself, rather than any true concern for the client or the needs of society. He is now a self-described “judge-penitent” who abases himself to others to elicit their sympathy and draw out their own foibles and weaknesses, with the motivation being power and control. He “holds court” in a seedy bar called “Mexico City,” in Amsterdam; he lives fairly simply and spouts pessimistic opinions about society, for example: A single sentence will suffice for modern man; he fornicated and read the papers.” While I would say that my philosophy courses helped me get through this story, I found the going rather plodding at times, and had to reread many paragraphs; worth it, though.

9. (some spoilers) “Old Man,” by William Faulkner was apparently initially designed to flesh out his novel, “The Wild Palms,” but was published as a work in its own right. The story tells of a “convict” (no name) who, with other convicts, is dispatched to aid in controlling a flood of the Mississippi River in 1927. He and another convict are put into a skiff, and assigned to pick up stranded people on the river. The skiff becomes swept away by the current; his companion saves himself by catching onto a low branch. The “convict” is presumed dead, but survives and picks up a pregnant woman. The “convict’s” goal is to save the woman and, really, find his way back to the penitentiary and return both himself and the skiff. Along the way, the child is born, they take up with a “Cajan” whom the “convict” helps in killing and skinning alligators, and the skiff itself becomes sort of a talisman or even teddy bear for the “convict” as he refuses to let it go, holding onto it by its rope almost in desperation throughout his adventure. Our hero is a very simple man, but with a great deal of integrity and persistence. I must admit that many of the sentences (some paragraph-long) were challenging to get through, but all in all, this was a very interesting story. As for the story’s title, I would recommend you give a listen to the soundtrack to “Show Boat.”

10. “Youth,” by Joseph Conrad, is an account by an attorney in his adulthood, of his first assignment as Second Mate on a sailing ship, the “Judea,” taking a load of coal from England to Thailand. The tale is told, much like “Lord Jim,” as an extended quote, with the narrator and his grown friends (all former seamen) hanging around discussing their youths. It turns out, the narrator, Charles Marlow, was also the narrator for “Lord Jim.” In this story, from 1868, Marlow describes the harrowing, perilous sea voyage not only to obtain the coal, but weathering a destructive storm at sea, having to refit, then having to get a new crew because even the ship’s rats abandoned her, the coal spontaneously combusting and the captain eventually having to agree to scuttle her, and finally making their way to land in the three ship’s boats, giving Marlow his first assignment as “Captain.” This is loosely based on a similar event in Conrad’s life, and I must say I enjoyed this story a great deal.

11. “The Lesson of the Master,” by Henry James, has more of a “drawing-room” setting in England. It tells of a young, successful author, Paul Overt, who is invited to a party at a country estate, where he meets Henry St. George, his literary hero, who has of late fallen on hard times and is not as productive as he once was. Paul also meets a mutual friend, General Farcourt, and his daughter Marian, who appears to be impressed with the works of both Paul and Henry. Over the next few weeks Henry and Paul meet, sometimes at the Farcourts’, and Henry confides to Paul that he himself has been an admirer of Paul’s works and also that Henry’s wife, to whom he is extremely devoted, had once forced him to burn a book, but doesn’t reveal its title. Henry deplores his current station, saying that his response to the public for more frequent publications has sabotaged the true art of literature, which takes much more time. Henry goes on to say that marriage and children are distractions from one’s art and should be avoided. Well, by this time Paul has fallen hard for Marian and has plans to marry her. But, reflecting on Henry’s advice, he decides to take an extended trip abroad to work on his next book, and when he returns…Well, I’ll not spoil the surprise… I certainly found the going slow, but quite worthwhile.

12. “My Mortal Enemy,” by Edith Wharton, tells of a long-term relationship between Nellie, the narrator, 12 at the beginning of the story, and her aunt’s friend Myra Henshawe. Nellie had met Myra only briefly, and when Nellie is older Myra comes to their home town of Parthia, Illinois, to visit. She has by this time married Oswald Henshawe in a whirlwind elopement and had moved to New York. Nellie is taken by Myra’s freewheeling personality, and she in turn sees Nellie as a sort of protégé. Accordingly, she invites Nellie and her aunt Lydia for an extended visit to New York. Myra exposes Nellie to a cultural and social world she’s never experienced before, including some infidelity by Oswald, some of Myra’s other relationships, some with famous artistic and musical personalities of the day, and Myra’s declining health. The story follows the relationship into Nellie’s adulthood and Myra’s death. This is the “bare bones” of this story, which is quite rich with characterization and narrative, describing the deepening relationship between two women separated mostly by age. Very nice, poignant story.

13. “The Ghost Writer,” by Philip Roth, tells of a young writer, Nathan Zuckerman, who is invited to the home of his hero and mentor, E.I. Lonoff. Lonoff is in a loveless, conflictual marriage, which culminates in the final scene. Also at the home is a young intern, Amy Bellette, to whom Nathan becomes infatuated. Ms. Bellette alleges that she is the surviving Anne Frank, with some credible “evidence.” The unraveling of this mystery combined with Nathan’s having to accept the flaws of his hero make up the plot of this story, which is rich in detail and character. I have learned that this story is one of a trilogy, “Zuckerman Bound, consisting also of “Zuckerman Unbound” and “The Anatomy Lesson,” as well as a follow-up novel, “Exit Ghost.”

14. “The Ebony Tower,” by John Fowles (“The Magus;” “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”), tells of a young painter/art critic, David Williams, who is commissioned to write the text accompanying a retrospective of the art of Henry Breasley. Mr. Breasley is now long in the tooth and described as not only brilliant but also a curmudgeon. Indeed, the title refers to Breasley’s cynical view of academia. When David arrives at Breasely’s residence, he makes the acquaintance of two young women, former art students, who are quite the free spirits and who also have a vaguely sexual/companionship/caretaker relationship with Breasley. These are the only four characters in this story (well, save for David’s off-screen wife Beth). David becomes intrigued by Diane, dubbed “The Mouse” by Breasley (the other, Anne, is dubbed “The Freak.”} The theme appears to be a search by David for the meaning of his life, identity and career, but this story is much richer than that. The relationships among the characters was fascinating, with Henry and David coming to know and appreciate each other, as well as David’s relationship with Diane And, as I have previously indicated, my appreciation of modern art took a quantum leap when I read Chaim Potok’s “My Name is Asher Lev,” and its sequel. That education has continued with my reading of this story, as there are references to at least twenty modern artists; Google got worn out with my gleeful searches! I found out this story had been made into a movie, but it is not available at either Public Library system in St. Louis, nor on Amazon Prime.

15. “Catholics,” by Brian Moore (who also wrote the novel and screenplay for “Black Robe”), first published in 1971, tells of a young American priest, Father James Kinsella, who is sent from Rome by the Father General of the fictional Abelesian Order to an abbey on a small island off the coast of Ireland. The time is close to the beginning of the 21st Century, at which time there have been two further fictional Vatican Councils (Vatican IV). The monks have continued to say the Mass in Latin despite “progress” in ecumenical areas by the Church; the Latin Mass is considered passé and the Mass itself is considered more of a ritual than a miracle. Father Kinsella’s mission is to order the monks to cease these traditions. The main interactions are between Father Kinsella and the Father Abbott, who has led this group of traditional, hardscrabble monks for several decades. It becomes clear during these conversations that both Father Kinsella and the Father Abbott have been struggling with a crisis of faith for some time. The resentment by the monks threatens the stability of the abbey, and the Father Abbott must take all of these dynamics into consideration before either complying or being forced to transfer elsewhere. The resolution is somewhat vague but satisfying. Those of us longer who’ve been around for awhile will appreciate the ecclesiastical background of this story. Mr. Moore also wrote the screenplay for a 1973 movie entitled “Catholics: A Fable,” starring Trevor Howard as the Father Abbott, a young Michael Gambon as one of the monks, and an even younger Martin Sheen as Father Kinsella. I’d recommend it; you can catch it, as well as “Black Robe,” on YouTube.

16. “The Blacking Factory,” by Wilfrid Sheed, the editor of this anthology, refers to a traumatic time in Charles Dickens’ life when he, at age 12, was made to leave school and work in a blacking (shoe polish) factory because of his parents’ financial irresponsibility. He did not tell anyone about this incident for many years, and had a very emotional reaction when he did so. In this context, our story is about Jim Bannister III, a Rush Limbaugh-type radio host who is unflappable under criticism or comment until a guest casually mentions that Jim had attended an English school, Sopworth College, in his adolescence. This renders Jim speechless. In the remainder of the story, Jim’s (well, Jimmy’s) father, with whom he lived after his mother’s death, who had become more and more distant as time passed. Jimmy is summarily sent to Sopworth, knowing no one, and having to adapt to the British manner of education. While never totally doing so, he manages to make some friends (one of whom is another American) and even befriend a teacher or two, as well as the Headmaster. Between school years, Jimmy spends an awkward summer trying to reconnect with his father, who remains distant, and his old friends, who seem too immature to him; an attempt to form a relationship with a girl goes awry. Thus, Jimmy is eager to return to Sopworth in the fall. But when he returns, he finds distance from both his friends and his Headmaster, with the result…well, I’ll let you read it for yourself.
Well, there you have it. I’m exhausted! Despite some slow parts, I greatly enjoyed this hefty book, and I’d recommend it. Five stars!

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