Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Day Hemingway Died and other stories

Last October was ‘Owen Marshall Month’ on this blog. I argued why it was more satisfying to read Marshall’s stories in their natural habitat (i.e. the collections in which they first appeared) rather than in a Best Of anthology, discussed three collections in more detail (The Lynx Hunter, Coming Home in the Dark, Watch of Grypons), before reviewing Marshall’s latest collection, Living as a Moon.

I wasn’t as monogamous this October (see my monthly reading summary post tomorrow) but I did read another Marshall collection, which I thought I might summarise in the same fashion as last year...

The Day Hemingway Died and other stories

Published 1984 (Marshall's third short story collection)
24 Stories, 158 Pages (an average length of 6.5 pages per story)

The vibe

I bought my copy at this year's Second Hand Book Fair at the TSB Arena along with Tomorrow We Save The Orphans (which I may save for October 2011). I only recognised a few stories in Hemingway from previous anthologies, ‘The Divided World’ being the most memorable (more on this a bit later). 

Olive KitteridgeThe fictional New Zealand town of Te Tarehi pops up frequently in Marshall’s oeuvre, but of the collections I’ve read Hemingway visits this town most frequently. The stories are not solely focussed on the one town like Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio or James Joyce’s Dubliners, but Te Tarehi and its inhabitants (particularly the Ransumeens) feature in at least half the stories and act as a uniting thread for the collection.

Most of the stories are brief and realistic, but there are a few, like ‘The Divided World’ and ‘Choctaw Princess’ which are more interested in language than plot. Humour, or perhaps wryness, is at the heart of a small number of stories, whereas others feel like vehicles for astute observation and aphorisms. Often I felt the stories suffered at the hands of this tendency for sweeping statements, like “Passion has a sudden grip when you are twenty” (‘Bravo Echo Victor’). Sometimes, however, the aphorism is good enough to justify the whole story, like, “In time we all punish our parents for having treated us like children.” (‘A Town of Rivers’).

My five favourite stories in the collection

Kenneth’s Friend

The first story in a Marshall collection always seems to make my top five. The narrator recalls the summer holiday he spent with his classmate Kenneth and his family down in Queen Charlotte Sound. He’s not really friends with Kenneth, and feels bossed around and neglected, eventually deciding to take revenge on Kenneth and his father by destroying their precious shell collection—then comes the twist.

The Divided World

“The world is divided between the superstitious, and the unimaginative; between those who love men, and those who love women; between those who have witnessed Bjorn Borg’s topspin, and those who have lost the chance; between the exemplary, and the few of us who are left.” Etc.

Is it a short story? Is it a poem? Who cares. It’s a fun, brainy three and a bit pages stuffed with insight and Oxford commas.

Bravo Echo Victor

Even though I felt pulled out of the story by the odd sweeping pronouncement from the narrator, the story as a whole was engaging. It probably helped that it was one of the longer stories in the collection. Bruce invites David to spend their leave from the army in his home town of Te Tarehi. David falls for Bruce’s sister, Bev (Bravo Echo Victor), he kinda sorta sexually assaults her (the ambiguous relation of this event feels horrifyingly true-to-life). On the way back to Waiouru, Bruce and David have a fist fight because, “Bruce had taken him home as a friend on leave, and in return he’d rolled his sister.” No one really wins.

The Fat Boy

Seventeen thousand dollars worth of parts go missing from the railway yards and the workers blame the fat boy they’ve seen hanging round. McNulty’s warehouse burns down, Mrs Denzil is tied upside down in her bathtub, Nigel Lammerton beats up his wife—and each time the fat boy is implicated. “The fat boy seemed to be a harbinger of trouble”, and the townspeople set about bringing the fat boy to justice, except he’s not that easy to find. When an angry mob finally gets their hands on him, he’s a goner, though “No-one seemed to know what happened to the fat boy’s body” afterwards.
A telling social satire with some laugh out loud moments (“Nigel Lammerton, with his experience as a wife-beater, got one or two really good thuds on the fat boy’s face...”).

Don’t Blame Yourself at All

This story directly follows ‘The Fat Boy’ and keeps up that satirical edge. Julie’s husband Russell is a huge bore, obsessed with the fuel efficiency of their car and planning every detail of their holiday. On top of this, it seems he talked her into getting an abortion in the recent past. When inspecting an old Maori pa site, Russell slips down a cliff and into the sea. He calls out for Julie to get the rope from the car as the tide is rising, but she stands frozen on the clifftop, to the delight of the reader, only for a traditional happy ending for Russell (and no one else).

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