Wednesday, March 1, 2023

Short Story Wednesday: James Baldwin: "The Rockpile"; Mildred Clingerman: "Birds Can't Count"; William Sansom: "A Woman Seldom Found"; Lorrie Moore: "You're Ugly, Too"

Four stories, from several volumes/other sources I've been meaning to deal with more completely for some time.

"The Rockpile" by James Baldwin; first published in Going to Meet the Man (Dial Press 1965); first reprinted in the UK in Argosy, November 1965.

"Birds Can't Count" by Mildred Clingerman, first published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, February 1955, edited by "Anthony Boucher"; reprinted in The Best from Fantasy and Science Fiction, Fifth Series, edited by Boucher, S-F: The Year's Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy (1956) edited by Judith Merril and A Cupful of Space (Ballantine, 1961) and The Clingerman Files (Size 5 1/2 B Publishing, 2017) by Clingerman

"A Woman Seldom Found" by William Sansom, first published in A Contest of Ladies and Other Stories by Sansom (Hogarth Press, 1956), and widely reprinted

"You're Ugly, Too" by Lorrie Moore, The New Yorker, 3 July 1989, edited by Robert Gottlieb; widely reprinted since, including in Best American Short Stories of the Century, edited by John Updike and Katrina Kenison, after appearance in Best American Short Stories 1990, edited by Shannon Ravenel and Richard Ford

Both the Dial Press volume above and the hc below were Dell Books,
albeit Dell back-sold hardcover rights to Gnome Press initially.

cover design by Edmund Emshwiller. who was not responsible for misspelling
Avram Davidson's name.

Aside from occurring to me as stories from anthologies and the like that have been hanging fire in my drafts file, something or another nudged me to look to these four for this week's entry, and they are kind of a disparate set, aside from sharing wit (usually of an arguably eccentric or bitter nature, or both), various sorts of yearning, and consideration of how easily things can go wrong between mates or potential mates...and a certain elegance. Also,  three of them (Moore's excepted) were first or most widely circulated in Dell (including the Dial Press) editions, also a bit of coincidence...Dell, in its long heyday, was an interesting publisher.

Baldwin's short story, original to his first volume collecting those (as late as 1965), "The Rockpile", immediately puts us in the context of two NYC kids ca. 1960 (I'd guess), raised in a deeply Christian working class black community intermingling with folks of other descriptions, particularly two half-brothers forbidden to go play on the stone outcropping in an otherwise undisturbed lot visible from their parents' apartment's fire escape, which serves as a sort of balcony for the they watch other neighborhood kids climb and skirmish and roughhouse. The younger of the two boys decides to go down and get involved with the rambunctious game of king of the hill, leaving his slightly older brother wondering what to do, as their mother talks with a fellow churchwoman in the kitchen and tends to the baby, and the older boy's stepfather and the other children's gruff father is due home any time. Questions of family responsibilities, unresolved resentments within the family, pressures of various sorts on everyone in the family and applied in every direction are dealt with gracefully, as this is a Baldwin story. Perhaps the least thoroughly imbued with humor of the four, it nonetheless is present, as the family deals with what they need to, at least for now.

Mildred Clingerman's "Birds Can't Count" is the most cheerful of our quartet, involving as it does a married couple's rather excessively settled ways being suddenly disrupted by the advent of a rather odd apparition invading the protagonist's bedroom, as she's attempting to catch a nap to cope with a hangover (from the previous night's dinner party) with her tomcat's company. The preening nature of the discussions at the previous night's party, delivered in elegant flashbacks (including some lubricious one-liners), rather anticipate the slightly more grim chatter in Lorrie Moore's story. 

William Sansom's "A Woman Seldom Found", is about as close to being a joke story that a horror story of sorts can be, and the shortest of today's quartet. A romantic but somewhat resigned, still relatively young man is on his first visit to Rome, and hopes against hope to find la dolce vita if at all possible, realizing its improbability. Nonetheless, he encounters a lovely young woman who seems as interested as he in living passionately...things take a surprising turn, even for those who suspect that things might already be too good to be true. 

And Lorrie Moore's story, her first for The New Yorker just after the change in regime there, is packed with (reasonably) increasingly bitter wit, as the protagonist is finding herself pressured by events serious and simply irritatingly trivial, as she takes a short Hallowe'en trip from her small-town Illinois campus life as a professor to visit her sister in NYC, who in her turn unknowingly simply makes things worse for her visiting sibling, not least in setting the prof informally up with a single man, and more than a bit of a dullard, at the holiday party the younger sister throws. As Moore noted in a profile in the Fall 1998 issue of Ploughshares:

'"You're Ugly, Too" was the first of many of her stories to be published in The New Yorker (and then to be reprinted, with regularity, in annuals such as The O. Henry Awards and The Best American Short Stories), but, in 1989, it was a controversial piece for the magazine. "All through the editing process, they said, 'Oooh, we're breaking so many rules with this.' " Robert Gottlieb had taken over as the editor, but the turgidity of his predecessor, William Shawn, still gripped the institution. "I could not say 'yellow light,' I had to say 'amber light,' " Moore remembers. "And that was the least of the vulgarities I'd committed."'

So, hints, as too often with this blog, of things to come; for more of today's SSW reviews and more, please see Patti Abbott's blog.


George said...

Love that EMSH cover! Once again I'm impressed by the range of stories you read!

pattinase (abbott) said...

Always a Lorrie Moore fan!

Todd Mason said...

George, I think most of us (if not all of us) who do these weekly roundelays are fairly protean in our interests, catholic in our certainly are.

Patti--definitely me, as well. It's notable how Packed her prose is, compared to the midcentury other three covered in this post...she does have their previous examples, as much as she is aware of them and she certainly is of their peers, at very least, but it is one of the tendencies of the literature...more busy-ness to reflect a certain mindset, at very least. I suspect Lorrie Moore would Not do well with the likes of Gordon Lish as an editor, nor should she ever have a Lish inflicted upon her.

Casual Debris said...

I quite like Lorrie Moore as well. I read a good deal of her work in the 1990s while in university as she was hip with creative writing students. Somehow I missed this one... at least it doesn't ring a bell.

Todd Mason said...

Frank, I think this one might've slipped past you as published in '89 initially and perhaps not collected in her own volumes till you might've been reading her more selectively. It did help her get some attention.

Joachim Boaz said...

I've yet to read any of Mildred Clingerman's SF. Do you have any favorite Clingerman stories?


Todd Mason said...

I still need to read the balance of CLINGERMAN FILES...from what I read years ago, "Minister without Portfolio", "A Red Heart and Blue Roses" and "Birds Can't Count" were among my favorites...though I've never picked up Space by the Tale, but did receive The Clingerman Files as a kind gift from Scott Cupp just after it was published. She's pretty consistently good, and we would've been better off if she had a more encouraged/sustained career.