Excursions Of A Bibliophile

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Ten Short Stories of Irwin Shaw I Liked the Most

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on April 18, 2008

To me a novel is like a marathon and short story a sprint. Both have their difficult sides and both have their grace. I love short stories because the effort associated with them is limited. You can read a few, drop them for a while, pick them up later at convenience and still not lose the joy of reading them. Novel is a one stretch job and in that sense demands a commitment that can at times get sapping. Having said that I always felt that a great novel needs a much grander artistic effort than a great short story. But whoever said that nutritious food is always tastier than snack food despite being more healthgiving?

Despite my liking, I find it difficult to write about a collection of short stories,especially, if there are a multitude of sub-themes, seemingly unconnected, but which start with a promise from the word go, grow vigorously and fade stubbornly – all dealing with the vast array of quirks and impulses that make up a grand thing called – LIFE. Fleeting, fugitive, slippery and making you want more — that is what Irwin Shaw’s stories are. An year ago I picked up a smaller collection of his stories – “Love On A Dark Street” – on the hunch that any author with such a name should be a good writer and it is a coincidence that it turned out to be true. I am hooked ever since . I am reading a collection of his stories anthologised from his repertory that spans over 5 decades — a majority of them truly and utterly brilliant with the originality that matches any of the great past masters of short story genre

I have a weakness for human voices and conversations and prefer them to plots and here they are – a lots of them – real, sad, angry, raspy, complaining, cheerful, frustrated, moody, indifferent, peevish, advising, umbrageous — voices without any traces of suggestive morals or hidden messages — but urgent, getting on with life, egotistic, situational, observing and feeling and all from a noisy throng including – writers, thieves, sailors, drunkards, whores, losers, winners, men, women, boys, girls, farmers, hopefuls, hopeless, expectants, brokers, lovers – steady and jilted — all finely balanced by the authors’ sympathetic and tempering voice – appearing sparingly —  once in a while, only when needed – almost invisible to the readers.

Therefore the best way to write about Shaw’s short stories is to write about some of the chosen gems and see if it leads one somewhere.

The eighty yard run: The uncontrollable and inexorable slipping of good life and the growth of gap between him and his loving wife of a former American football star at the turn of Great Depression. What makes this story poignant is the gradual but the resigned  and helpless acceptance of the situation by the protagonist

Borough of cemeteries: The frustration of two new york cab drivers caught in their daily struggle for life and the immense sense of satisfaction they get in wrecking their means of livelihood — the cabs they drive — which belong to their renting companies and the throwing of their wages away on whisky.  The battered jalopies and the view that ” We are high class spenders” for having thrown their wages on expensive whisky leaves them with immense momentary satisfaction despite the blood, gore and injury which they get into while battering their cabs

Main currents of American thought: The story of a bachelor writer trying to keep his personal and all the needs of his family satisfied through the earnings from his writings. The fact that he is too young to be juggling multiple responsibilities dawns on the reader only in the last sentence which is very carefully crafted – His arm hurt at the shoulder when he threw and the boy playing second base called him Mister which he would not have done even last year when Andrew was twenty four — and the story ends

Welcome to the city: A brilliant story that portrays the loneliness of inhabitants of NY city who chance upon in a hotel. The conversation is fantastic

” I know that face” Enders said. “But from where?” “She looks like Greta Garbo”, Wysocki said “That’s where you know her from”

Suddenly Enders realised that he was a stranger in a strange city, a thousand miles from home, that it was raining out, that he had no girl and that no one in this wrangling seven million town had ever said anything more tender to him than “Pass the mustard”

“The papers are full of boys like him” Josephine was saying. “Turning the gas on and stuffing their heads into the oven. What a night! what a stinking whore of a night! They will find plenty of bodies in the river tomorrow morning”.

Through short sentences Shaw manages to paint a picture of a sliver of the oppressively massive underbelly of a city like New York

The girls in their summer dresses: What starts as a perfect day with a perfect plan of being together – all to themselves, the whole day – at the expense of rejecting a friends offer for an outing in the countryside is completely ruined when the husband bares his innermost (harmless??) thoughts and feelings towards other women he encounters everyday — eventually ending up in the couple accepting the offer of their friend to avoid the suffocation of being together

Return to Kansas City: A wife nagging her boxer husband to allow her to go her mother’s place in Kansas City from New York and he helplessly agrees despite the lack of affluence to afford the expenses of the trip. Physically the wife is frail, weak and puny while the boxer is huge, powerful and driven by the need for rest. The nagging prevails and the boxer gives in

I stand by Dempsey: The story is told through a continuous reference to boxers and boxing but has nothing to do with either. It is about two friends different in their physical and mental strengths and how one dominates the other — utterly. One friend stands for the famous boxer of their times  – Dempsey and the other does not. Truly brilliant.

God on friday night: A simple and charming story of a woman who claims to be a non believer in God but becomes a believer for the sake of Grandson. Superb sense of conversation. Some day I would want to meet people like these in flesh and blood who speak like the way they do. Here is a sample: ” I have done things Ma” Sol said slowly, choosing his words with great care ” that were not good.”
” If we were all angels, we would not need airplanes”
Ma said with an air of finality

Stop pushing, Rocky: The desperate and tiring attempt of an experienced and skillful boxer (Rocky) to keep a greenhorn in the ring for 10 full rounds despite the greenhorn’s indiscipline owing to a verbal agreement taken up under duress. Great craftsmanship at display.   Consider this: ” I did not hit him hard“, Joey protested, “It was strictly a medium punch” “He’s got a chin like a movie star. Like Myrna Loy. He should not be in this business. He should wait on customers in store. In a diary. Butter and eggs” – 2 lines and the personality of the greenhorn becomes very vivid to the reader

Through the book one finds this great capability of painting characters in very vivid terms

March, march on down the field:  What starts as a promising protest by a football team against their manager ends up in acquiescence with the team ending up on the football ground ready to play under harsh cold conditions. You feel sad at the end of the story for the players. Consider a clip of the conversation

“Also,” Scheepers said, there has been some slip up in the helmets. The amateur team that was to play here this morning and leaving the helmets didnt play on account of the snow, so you will have to play without helmets.”                                                                                                                              “Good old Scheepers” said Holstien ” He thinks of everything”
“It was an error” Scheepers said ” An unavoidable error. Lots of guys play without helmets”
“Lots of guys jump off bridges too” said Holstein 

I will continue adding and deleting stories that I like as I go along reading the book and refine my choice. However, the plan is to limit them to ten in all….

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2 Responses to “Ten Short Stories of Irwin Shaw I Liked the Most”

  1. chrissy said

    hi, i was reading your blog and am very interested in reading ‘return to kansas city’, however it seems to be out of stock and/or print. do you by any chance have a digital copy you could email to me?
    Thanks so much
    Chrissy

  2. hi,it’s very interesting…i have just read <> and it’s really a good story……..

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