What do you do about death …

I have finally returned to my attempt to read all one hundred of the Best American Short Stories of the Century. At the rate I’m going, it will probably take me the next one hundred years.

In his preface, John Updike, admits that his purpose was not to compile the best stories in the world, or even in the United States, but the best uniquely American stories. The definition of a uniquely American story is certainly a subject that could be debated ad nauseam. Americans are like people all over the world, are we not?  There are American farmers just as there are German farmers. Could it be our feet?  I have had people in other countries tell me they can always spot American tourists.  We’re the only bozos who wear tennis shoes nearly everywhere when they are clearly meant only to be worn on a tennis court. Pardonnez moi!

But of course, Updike was not referring to our shoes or our manner of farming. What do you think he defined as “a central strand in America’s collective story?” Yup, immigration. If you’re an American, the ancestors who brought you here often came with nothing thus their lives were “scramble and survival.” Some people maintained strong ties to old world traditions and some did not. How immigrants reacted to their new realities are in the stories told by their children and grandchildren.

Predicting Trumpism?

Saul Bellow was a writer primarily known for his connection to Chicago, a city I lived in for almost three years in my early twenties. Chi-town is a prototypical working class town/city.  Unlike the old money families on the East Coast, its millionaires are rough, generally unscrupulous men with ties to the mob.  This was particularly true during Bellow’s childhood. 

In 1979 he published a story called “The Silver Dish.” In this story Woody Selbst’s father believes abandoning and then betraying his family is the right thing to do because it makes his children (particularly his son) stronger.  He’s a con man, a liar and a grifter and yet people always seem willing to forgive him and even give him another chance. Like their neighbors, the Selbsts are recent immigrants for whom “money was a vital substance” and Christian charity came with a price, paid by the samaritan. Selbst is confused about everything in life; the hypocrisies of religion, the complications of romantic relationships, and in particular, why he can’t seem to condemn his father. Particularly on the last chance he has: his father’s deathbed. Indeed the story begins with the question “What do you do about death?” My reaction to this story was similar to my reaction to Updike’s own story “Gesturing”:  Beautifully written but deeply disconcerting.

There’s gotta be a more cheerful story in this collection!  Let’s see (from Updike’s intro) there’s “The Peach Stone:”  The burial of a child builds to a redemptive affirmation. I’ll pass on that one for now.

How about Edward Fenton’s “Burial in the Desert” I don’t even have to read the synopsis. No, no, no.

Then there’s Lorrie Moore’s: “You are Ugly Too”: …the heroine’s nearly consummated desire to push off the edge of a skyscraper, a man dressed in a marked-up body stocking, dressed as a woman.

That one might be cheerful.  What do you think?

16 thoughts on “What do you do about death …

  1. ahhh
    enjoyed this post JT
    and I like that video snippet from Harold and Maude – it has been years since I have seen it and need to rewatch

    and best wishes as you decide what to read next.
    I have a handful of books with collections of some sort and I do “pass” over the ones that are dark or just not to my liking.
    I know thee are times we stretch and need to read variety – there are times when we must grow and learn from selections that are not in our mainstream or fav. – which is why many of us buy these collected stories and whatnot.
    However, I also feel that I do myself a disservice if I read certain material. The heavness or staining can impact me in a way that is not ideal.
    I really believe that we soak things up in different ways and we do not just shrug things off as some would say
    and so dark or heavy – or horror or certain pieces are just not what i choose to invite into my essence and any loss will be accepted as a fine trade off.

    lastly, the immigration note was powerful – that truly is “American”

    1. I didn’t much care for Updike or Bellow when I was younger – I’ve had to grow into them. Because this is a group of the supposed best, I like to read why Updike selected each story. Generally I agree with him but not always! Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

      1. i only remember a few updike selections from grace school
        and the pleasure was mine to read and comment – hope you ha r a great weekend

  2. The Saul Bellow’s quote seems appropriate for this week. As for your question, I have no real answer but find those sorts of questions stick with me. Maybe eventually I’ll have something concrete to answer, but until then I’ll say “I dunno.”

    1. I was being snarky – so far I haven’t read a single up-beat story in that collection! I guess the authentically American story is depressing! However, hope lives.

  3. I enjoyed your post and, as a non-American, but a prolific reader, I appreciate that the stories written in all countries are different. The British often write family dramas, family sagas and beautiful poetry about summer, flowers, and such like. Their writing is descriptive and delightful. The Americans tend more towards thrillers, murders and stories featuring serial killers. Horror and paranormal is popular. The writing is more dialogue and action based. I think it is quite fascinating. This, of course, is just my experience.

    1. Interesting observations. I think you’re primarily right. In college I focused on English literature probably for the reasons you cite. I prefer stories that take me far away. But I’m on a mission!

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