Thursday, November 28, 2013

Michael York And The Message of Cabaret

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone!

Last night we watched Cabaret with Lisa Minelli and Michael York. We’d never seen it before, at least not all the way through, as we’ve never been Minelli fans and the obvious theme of threesomes and bisexuality has never interested us.

I bought the Cabaret DVD as a result of recently reading:

(1) Jeremy Bernstein’s MOSTLY HE WON: Kubrick, Bobby Fischer, and the Attractions of Chess. In here, Bernstein points out to Kubrick that Joel Grey was not German, as his Jewish-American father was Mickey Katz, who played the clarinet in Spike Jones’s orchestra and “had made some very funny records of operetta warhorse ballads translated into Yiddish.” Stanley Kubrick then says that Cabaret is the greatest musical of all time.

(2) Coincidentally, shortly after I read this, on November 21st, fellow Cormackian Tom Conoboy blogged about Cabaret glowingly at this LINK. Conoboy says,
“This is the glory of Cabaret for me, both the film and the play. Yes, we see the darkness of humanity, the depths to which it can descend. But that darkness is transient. Hitler’s thousand year Reich lasted barely twelve years. Humanity was restored. Love, humour, lust, companionship will survive, will revive, will reassert themselves. For all the apparent lowness of the lives of the dancers and regulars of the Kit Kat Klub, they represent humanity, glorious, unpredictable, bawdy humanity. And they will win. Always.
(3) I discovered that Michael York, who stars opposite Minelli in the movie, has been fighting amyloidosis, the same disease that my wife is fighting. Here’s a good article on York’s fight to stay alive: “I’ll Never Take Anything For Granted Again.”
Michael and Pat York
Michael and Pat York, from their website

York credits his wife with helping him attain the correct diagnosis–after three years of going from doctor to doctor. That was our own experience too. And I don’t think that we ever would have had a correct diagnosis if I hadn’t gotten involved and harangued doctors for treating my wife’s symptoms instead of looking for the underlying disease. Our GP gave up on her at one point, suggesting that her pain was in her head and recommending a psychiatrist. At which point we changed doctors.

It was finally tentatively diagnosed, not by a doctor, but by an angelic APRN named Debra Lusk, in Elizabethtown. Kentucky.  Her diagnosis was confirmed by the world renown Dr. Merrill Benson at Indiana University Hospital in Indianapolis.  Apparently people die from this disease all the time without ever having a proper diagnosis.

My wife and I are not ones to take our gift of life for granted. We know that it is temporary, and we treasured each other every day long before the onslaught of this disease.   And we know that this disease is yet incurable, that the median survival rate of this disease is a year and a half. Yet some people live with it for ten years or more, and so we are hopeful. And again thankful for each day.

The song from Cabaret goes,

Start by admitting: from cradle to tomb,
it isn’t that long a stay.

Yes, indeed. It sees the problem, but it doesn’t have the right answer. I can see value in its anti-authority theme, and in its compassion for the Other–ruder forms survive, as McCarthy puts it. Cabaret‘s carnivalesque show is deeply noir, and in that, a great work of art. BUT…

I can also see that the movie is shortsighted in its ultimate message. Cabaret prescribes continued denial, the addiction of distraction, instead of the facing of life’s temporal reality with love, gratitude, and responsibility. That is what Michael York and his wife are facing in their real-life roles.

As are we.

Thursday, October 31, 2013


First, thanks to all for your cards, phone calls, and prayers concerning Seleta's health.

For anyone who hasn't yet heard, my wife, Seleta, was diagnosed with amyloidosis in July.  She is doing relatively well now, in the middle of chemotherapy treatments, pert and positive as usual, always cheerful.  We are grateful for each and every day.

Happy Halloween to everyone.
Seleta and I ran together in this race, years ago.  Sometimes it seems like just a few months ago.

The best links for last year's literary Halloween are at this link:

And, the best Halloween links from the year before are at this link:

The literary Halloween costume of the day is Holden Caulfield, from J. D. Salinger's iconic novel, The Catcher in the Rye.
From the web (link to follow)

Stephen Colbert as Holden Caulfield
from this: link

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Is noir a left-wing art form?

This is an excerpt from Barry Graham, from "Noir:  The Marxist Art Form" at this link::
There were rat footprints in the dried lard in the frying pan. Sometimes the rats woke me, but this time I had slept through their visit. They were now a fact of life, like dogs or pigeons.
It was Raeberry Street, Maryhill, Glasgow in 1975. The cleansing department was on strike, and mountains of plastic bags full of garbage were piled in the back courts of the crumbling tenements. The flats didn’t have bathrooms or hot water, just closet-sized toilets.

This was how we lived, but it was not what we read. The most popular books read by children were Enid Blyton’s Famous Five novels, about a group of upper-class English children who had adventures and solved mysteries. The most popular books among the adults, I think, were Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, and Barbara Cartland’s romances. We kids also liked American comics. I remember standing on top of the midden, pretending to be Superman atop a tall building, yelling, “Up, up and away!” but I couldn’t fly out of there.

It was how we lived, but it was not what we watched on TV. Whether it was Upstairs, Downstairs—a soap about the English aristocracy—or Coronation Street, a soap about working class people in the North of England—there were no rats. There was hot water, and bathtubs. There was no mother of five knocking on a neighbor’s door to ask for help because it was payday and instead of coming home from his job at the butcher’s, her husband had disappeared into the pubs, and would not come home until Sunday. In the books we read and the TV we watched, money—or rather the lack of it—was never mentioned. The characters engaged in their dramas, mundane or life-threatening, marrying or divorcing or fucking or murdering one another without ever discussing rent arrears, lack of food, or utilities being cut off.

That year, the film Jaws was released, and broke all-time box-office records. Because of this, the novel it was based on became ubiquitous, in paperback with the image from the film’s poster on the cover. The film, a masterpiece of suspense, was the standard story of a heroic individual—a police chief, played by Roy Scheider—who wants to close his town’s beach because of shark attacks, but is overruled by greedy officials who want tourist dollars.

But the novel is less about man-eating sharks than the fear of poverty. Brody, the police chief, is struggling to get by. His wife, who comes from a wealthy family, is embarrassed about having married beneath her station, and is so resentful and bored that she has an affair. The reason that the town’s elected officials and business people conspire to keep the beaches open is not because they are evil and greedy and don’t care that people might get eaten by the shark; they are desperate, because they depend on the summer tourist season for their livelihood, and are afraid of losing their homes if the beach is closed.

Although the characters in the novel Jaws had a standard of living that seemed fabulous to me, it was the first time in fiction that I encountered the fear that defined the lives of everyone I knew.

Monday, July 1, 2013

DOUBLE, DOUBLE: The Fates, Addiction, Double Endemity, and Martha Grimes

A little rum will get this affair on its feet.

DOUBLE, DOUBLE: A DUAL MEMOIR OF ALCOHOLISM by Martha Grimes, the justly acclaimed author of murder mystery novels and her son, Ken Grimes.  The doubles in the title can be seen as allusions to the dual narrative of the text, to a double shot, to the chant of the Wyrd Sisters in MacBeth, or to the book and film, Double Endemity.  It is cleverly accomplished, as you shall see from the quotes below.
Double, double, toil and trouble.

Over at Peter Rozovsky's blog (link), he hosted a discussion seeking to define "noir," but the definitions there differ.

True noir, it seems to me, is exemplified especially by MacBeth, concerning power addicts and the temptations of the fates.  These too, are noir, for the stories are of walking shadows caught up in the maze of their addictions, poor players who strut and fret for their entire hour upon the stage, lives of desperation, the sound and the fury.

These are noir because they show the addict's journey into the blackness.

Some people feel that noir is Marxist or at least left-wing and some leftists and buddhists say that it reflects actual life in this material vale.  Not just addictions to money and power, but to such things as causes, soap operas, guns, alcohol, tobacco, promiscuous sex, and drugs.

Martha Grimes says this in her chapter entitled "Double Double Indemnity":

"This, mind you, is what's called "alcoholic" or"addictive thinking."  The whole approach to drinking is crazily mazelike.  You turn left, you turn right, you go along, you go back.'

"Now you--standing outside the maze, having heaps of laughter at the idiot in there who can't find his way out--please note:  The idiot in there doesn't know it's a maze; he thinks this is the Capital Beltway or some other annoying, clogged-up, circular multilaner, but for all of that minor annoyance, it's the only way he can travel.  This kind of thinking can also be called 'denial.'  There are exits from the Beltway, clearly marked; there's an exit from the maze unmarked.  Much harder to negotiate.'

"So, you, standing outside at the exit, yell, "It's over here, stupid.'

"But for the addict lost in the addiction, where's here? . . ."

"Another member of our group is leaving.  He's standing before us, giving reasons for his decision to stop coming to the clinic. . .He says he has his drinking under control now.'

Straight down the line, Walter.

That's more or less what I want to say to him.  It's what Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck) says to Walter (Fred MacMurray) in that great film noir Double Indemnity.'

In any well-constructed mystery, there is a sense of inevitability. . .The movie begins with a gorgeous romance into which is interjected something chancy and dangerous, thereby making the romance even more glamorous.  Then they do the dangerous thing together, and it's all downhill from there.'

"I've watched Double Indemnity so many times that I think it's leaking out of my pores as slowly as my last drink.  It's such a beautiful piece of chiaroscuro; the lighting should be distilled and drunk neat.  There's the scene at the end where she's sitting in her living room, waiting for him with a gun; his shadow is thrown on the wall as he stands in the doorway with a gun. . .'

Straight down the line, baby.
Straight down the line.

"After that earlier dialogue, you think, Oh, God, now it's come down to this.  And this is where I see our own Walter, announcing he's quiting.'

The way in which Double Indemnity moves along the track to its inescapable end is the way this fellow will end.  He can handle his drinking, he says.  He's got a plan.  Say, drinking only on weekends.  It doesn't matter.  What he's thinking about now is the taste of that first drink. . ."

"He's Walter.  The bottle's Phyllis.  They're a perfect fit.  The bottle is alive with solace and the fulfillment of desire.  But the thirst is unquenchable.  There is no stop on this train ride until you're over the rail and onto the track, like Phyllis's husband."

Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Ox-Bow Incident, The Archer, & The Question Mark

An Ox-Bow

Congratulations to Ox-Bow and all of his connections, winners today of the Preakness Stakes.

As luck has it, I was just reading the current issue of Firsts: The Book Collector's Magazine (May, 2013), which features Walter Van Tilburg Clark's 1940 novel, The Ox-Bow Incident, certainly an American classic:

  • "Most men are more afraid of being thought cowards than of anything else, and a lot more afraid of being thought physical cowards than moral ones."
  • "You can't go hunting men like coyotes after rabbits and not feel anything about it. Not without being like any other animal. The worst animal." - Walter Van Tilburg Clark, The Ox-Bow Incident
  • Thomas Cox's THE OXBOW (1936)  Note the question mark.

    The ox-bow of the title refers to a geographical phenomenon (where, in the novel, the hangings take place), which has nuances of "The Second Coming" by William Butler Yeats.  The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.

    It also alludes to Thomas Cox's famous 1836 painting, The Oxbow, which illustrates the division between nature and civilization--at least pastoral civilization.  The oxbow circles creating a question mark between them.  The birds wheel and circle too.

    The division can be seen as Aristotle vs. Plato, or as Apollo vs. Dionysus, or as control vs. anarchy, as men act cowardly in their vain attempt to prove their courage, their manliness.  The mob misappropriates for itself a monopoly on virtuous masculinity and castigates all opposition as unpatriotic weakness and femininity.
    The Ox-Bow of a noose

    Sunday, May 12, 2013

    Louisville, H. L. Mencken, and The Great Gatsby

    The new movie of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby is opening soon and its connections have been making the rounds on the television talk shows.

    Once again, Louisville's historical connections with the novel and its author are in the the news.  See this link, and this one, and this one.  This last week, KET showed a documentary about Newport, Kentucky and its Mafia connections, including the story of lawyer/gangster George Remus--who inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald's Jay Gatsby.  Or so they say.

    When I was young, I loved the novel the first time I read it without really understanding why--except I that I could identify with that male narrative voice.  Over the years I've read much of the critical literature on the novel.  Like Lois Tyson's essays, "You Are What You Own" and "What's Love Got To Do With It?"  Indeed, later critical readings had me questioning whether the idea of love in here was a superficial possessive love or genuine unconditional love.

    The movie adaptations are hard for me to watch, despite the eye candy of the different actresses who have played Daisy.  The plot is jarring without the meditative palliative of the prose.  I know the book by heart, and perhaps it is the great clanking inevitability of what happens that puts me off.  The Robert Redford/Mia Farrow movie strikes me as spectacularly beautiful but profoundly sad, a Kentucky Derby party when the favorite pulls up lame and is found to have broken its legs.

    Still, in my opinion, the novel itself is great because it contains the right amount of mature reflection, the right mixture of recalcitrance, universal ambiguity, and human compassion.  It is a much more mature work than This Side of Paradise, which was a young man's novel, witty and clever but less wise, more materialistic than humanistic.

    Predictably, critic H. L. Mencken, who had championed This Side of Paradise, turned against The Great Gatsby.

    From Charles Angoff's memoir:

    "Mencken once asked me to accompany him to a New York hotel where F. Scott Fitzgerald was staying.  I looked forward to meeting Fitzgerald, for while I had not taken him very seriously as a writer, I had a persistent curiosity about him.  I told Mencken as much as we walked to the hotel.'

    "As usual, you're crazy, Angoff,' he said.  'If you had said The Great Gatsby was poor stuff I'd agree with you.  There Scott is writing about people he doesn't know anything about.  At best it's only an overlong short story, but This Side of Paradise is really something, my boy, and when your children start shaving you'll realize how right I am.  But by then I'll be in heaven or in a Trappist monastery, and you won't have a chance to apologize.'

    ". . .Fitzgerald greeted us warmly.  He had been drinking and was hardly able to stand up straight.  He tried to embrace Mencken, who was obviously annoyed by this attempt at intimacy.  Mencken then introduced me:  "Meet Angoff, my private chaplain."

    "Fitzgerald and I shook hands.  Mencken then said:  "Don't say anything dirty about the Virgin Mary or call the Pope a dope or discuss Cardinal O'Connell's children.  You see, Angoff is an unfrocked priest and is living with an escaped Polish nun--she smells like a smoked ham--but deep down both of them are still very devout Catholics."

    "Fitzgerald did not seem amused.  He offered us drinks.  Mencken noticed a copy of Spengler's The Decline of the West on a table.  "So you're reading that swill," he said.'

    "That's not swill, Henry," Fitzgerald said.  "That man is a thinker."

    "Bosh," said Mencken.  "You talk like Knopf, who published the stuff, and who probably hasn't read it."

    "Have you?" asked Fitzgerald.

    "Merely glanced at it.  A fellow like me knows when to stop reading.  Isn't he another one of those Socialist swine?"

    "He's no Socialist," Fitzgerald said quietly as he fondled half a glass of straight whiskey in his hand. . .He walked up and down the room, in silence.  Then he said:

    "Henry, I got another idea for a novel going through my head.  Have a lot of it written up.  It's about a woman who wants to destroy a man, because she loves him too much and is afraid she'll lose him, but not to another woman--but because she'll stop loving him so much.  She decides to destroy him by marrying him, but gets to love him even more than before.  Then she gets jealous of him, because of his achievements in some line that she thinks she's also good in.  Then, I guess, she commits suicide but she does it the way all people, all women, commit suicide, by drinking, by sleeping around, by being impolite to friends, and that way.  I haven't got the rest of it clear in my head, but that's the heart of it.  What do you think, Henry?"

    "Well, it's your wife, Zelda, all over again," Mencken said.
    Zelda Fitzgerald

    Fitzgerald sat down, swallowed some of his drink, and then got up and paced back and forth.  Without looking at Mencken, he said:  "That's the dumbest piece of literary criticism I have ever heard or read."

    Mencken said nothing.  Fitzgerald continued.  "You know, Henry, sometimes I think you're no literary critic at all.  I don't know what the hell you are, but you're no critic, that's sure. . .You don't know what a writer goes through, what he fumbles for, you don't know the grace he searches for.  And, goddamn it, you have no compassion.  Of all the times to mention Zelda to me.  Of all the goddamn times to mention her."  He sank into his chair and burst into tears.

    Mencken stood up, muttered, "I'll be seeing you," and he and I walked out.  As we returned to the office he told me, "Scott will never amount to a hoot in hell till he gets rid of his wife."  

    Friday, May 10, 2013

    Friday's Forgotten Book: Don Winslow's THE WINTER OF FRANKIE MACHINE

    Sometimes the first book I read by an author will have been their best, making me somewhat disappointed in every other book by this author that I subsequently encounter.  Sometimes it works the other way.

    You would think it logical that authors start out as amateurs and imitative and develop their craft as they age, that a natural arc would build toward a peak of their abilities.  This did not happen with F. Scott Fitzgerald and it didn't happen with the topic author of the day, Don Winslow.

    Earlier this year, I did a reading survey of surfing novels and movies, which included rereads of Winslow's The Dawn Patrol (2008) and The Gentleman's Game (2009).  I read them very closely, wanting to see more, but my opinion of them did not change.  They are YA tinged, comic-book inspired, near-beer novels--Don Winslow lite.

    I was taken aback once again when I got into Don Winslow's amazingly well-written thriller, The Winter of Frankie Machine (2006).  I included this book in my reading survey because I thought it might be an early version of Dawn Patrol, a surfer's detective novel.  Although the protagonist is an old surfer and lives near the beach, this turned out to be something else, and written on a much higher level.

    Make no mistake, The Winter of Frankie Machine is still a genre crime thriller, and also a Mafia hitman novel.  My admiration for this tale goes against many of my long-held biases.  I spoke out against the cliche of Mafia novels before they became popular--that is, not only before the television series, The Sopranos, but long before the 1969 publication of Mario Puzo's The Godfather (which, against all my predictions, turned out to be a great novel).  Back in 1967, I had said that the Mafia stereotype was finally done after the comic cliches in John Godey's A Thrill A Minute With Jack Albany.

    I was wrong.

    So much of fiction depends upon the way the story is told.  Craft or magic, I can't always decide.  The Winter of Frankie Machine opens like a surfing novel, letting us get to know (and like) the protagonist, who gets his moniker from that older crime novel, Nelson Algren's The Man With The Golden Arm.  We don't learn of Frankie Machine's Mafia past until later, and we then like him enough to forgive him for being a cliche.

    It is an amiable deception.

    One of the cliches of crime fiction is the plot device where the hunter becomes the hunted.  Yet we know that life works exactly this way, that when we look into the abyss, it looks back at us.  Here's a bit of Frankie Machine's discussion of that:
    Frank Sinatra played Frankie Machine

    "A connection develops between hunter and prey.  Guys deny it as airy-fairy bullshit, Frank thought, but they all know it happens.  You track a guy long enough, you get to know him, you're living his life, one step removed, and he becomes real to you.  You try to get inside his head, think the way he thinks, and if you succeed at that, in a strange way you become him."

    Another cliched plot device of the thriller, at least according to thriller author John Lescroart writing in Mystery Readers Journal, is that the corruption in the crime novel always goes up to "the highest levels of government."  Well, isn't that often the way it works in real life too?

    Listen to Frankie Machine:

    "Garth and the other S&L guys would get themselves saving and loan operations, make unsecured loans to themselves and their partners through shell corporations, then default on the loans and drain their S&Ls of all their assets.'

    "Identical in shape to your classic Mafia bust-out, Frank thinks now, except we only managed to do it with restaurants and bars, maybe the occasional hotel.  These guys busted out the whole country to the tune of $37 billion and Congress hit up the working guy to pay for it.'

    "The whole S&L house of cards eventually came tumbling down, and Garth and a few of the others did some time polishing their short games at various Club Feds, and the senators and congressmen  who had been on the boat, literally and figuratively, got on CNN to proclaim what a disgrace it all was"

    "...You could take the Crips, the Bloods, the Jamaican posses, the Mafia, the Russian mob, and the Mexican cartels, and all of them put together couldn't rake in as much green in a good year as Congress does in a bad afternoon.  You could take every gang banger selling crack on every corner in American, and they couldn't generate as much ill-gotten cash as one senator rounding the back nine with a corporate CEO.'

    "My father told me that you can't beat the house, and he was right.  You can't beat the White House, or the House of Representatives.  They own the game and the game is fixed, and it isn't fixed for us.'

    "...the government wants to shut down organized crime?  That's hysterical.  The government is organized crime."

    Tuesday, May 7, 2013

    Cormac McCarthy, Folksinger: Tuesday's Forgotten or Little-known A/V

    Cormac McCarthy is not an uncommon name, at least in Ireland, since the days of the historical Cormac McCarthy who was presented with the Blarney Stone by Robert the Bruce hundreds of years ago.
    Cormac McCarthy, new CD: Collateral
    These days, beyond the famous American author by that name, we have a less-known folk singer named Cormac McCarthy, who has New England roots and often sings of the working poor.  The songs on his newest CD (entitled Collateral) are outstanding and make a good soundtrack for Ron Rash's Nothing Gold Can Stay.

    The material is sometimes literary and poetic, “the wink of a roadkill crow,” the vocal delivery is folk-blues and solid, the musical arrangements are splendid. The lyrics are not included in the liner notes, but McCarthy’s voice is strong and clear at the right volume. You hear every word.  His voice compares favorably with that of Gordon Lightfoot.

    The lead piece is “Gotta Keep Movin” which conjures up some words that novelist Cormac McCarthy has written: Nothing ever stops moving. This song also has a lyric line from Satchel Paige’s six rules of life, “Don’t look back, something might be gaining.”
    What’s gaining, of course, is the hound of heaven or the hound of hell--Death either way, as in Suttree.

    This is reprised in what I think, first time through, is the best track on the CD, “You Can’t Outrun The Hounds,” which, with its upbeat guitar, would make a good addition to anyone’s running soundtrack.

    Not that there is a bad track on this CD. As I say, the last time I listened to this man was back in the days of NAPSTER, and I wasn’t impressed then. But on this CD, the production seems highly professional, kind of a universal blue-collar sound.   I plan to listen to the whole thing several times.   Some of the tracks are noir, of lives lived in quiet desperation.

    Gotta Keep Movin'
    The Working Poor
    Cadilac Man
    Back When I Worked on the Railroad
    The Crossroads
    On a Night Like This
    You Can't outrun the Hounds
    Walking on Solid Ground
    Jailhouse Bound

    Here's a good link:

    Monday, May 6, 2013

    Ron Rash, Charles E. May, Southern Gothic,

    Since Firsts Magazine presented their feature on Ron Rash last September, I've been reading some of his short stories and, for the most part, I've been very pleased with them.

    This week we saw Silver Linings Playbook on DVD.   Nice performances by the two leads who team up again in the movie adaptation of Ron Rash’s Serena, which has been filmed but not yet released. Due in September, I think now.

    Jennifer Lawrence as a Lady MacBeth?

    Serena is a modern Lady MacBeth minus the hand-washing, so it will be worth watching to see how Jennifer Lawrence plays it.   Ron Rash has a feel for the working poor, the corrupt rich, and the complicity of shared weaknesses.   Serena became his most widely known novel, but he has made a name for himself with his stories, which sometimes can be described as country/southern noir.

    Professor emeritus Charles E. May, whose lifelong pursuit of excellence in the short story resulted in several fine books, discusses Ron Rash’s new collection, Nothing Gold Can Stay, at this link:

    And don’t miss fellow Cormackian Tom Conoboy’s praise of Ron Rash at these links:


    Name the ten best short stories you've ever read.  It's a difficult task, like trying to name the ten best songs you've ever heard.

    If you've read as many stories as I have, it can't be done.  The best you can do is to name ten best stories which are personal favorites right now, while acknowledging the fact that there are many more ambitious, acclaimed, and possibly better written stories at large.

    We can't help but think of those classics we have read again and again with adjacent biographical, historical, and critical works at hand. Works like James Joyce's "The Dead," Jack London's "To Build A Fire," and Anton Chekhov's "The Lady With The Pet Dog."  We can't pick between Hemingway's "Big, Two-Hearted River" and "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place," so we'd include them both.

    You might disqualify such fictional works such as Joseph Conrad's "Youth" and "Heart of Darkness" as novellas rather than long short stories.  You might disqualify such film transformations as Rod Serling's "The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street," otherwise long among my personal favorites.

    Two of my favorites are certainly not well known--but they should be.  They are Richard Russo's short story, "Horseman," which I blogged about at this link, and Stephen Dobyns' "A Happy Vacancy," the lead story in his collection entitled Eating Naked.

    I've reread "Horseman" several times now, and I can see the horseman of the title in different ways.  For one thing, he is the guardian between our real selves and the selves we try to project outwardly to the world.  Or he may simply represent our real, hidden selves.  This seems to fit with the way author George Saunders and literary scholar and author Charles E. May discuss the art of the short story (see this link).

    "A Happy Vacancy" starts out as a satire about an academic poet in the James Dickey mode who takes himself and his poetry far too seriously.  One day he is killed when a large pig suddenly falls out of the sky and crushes him.  The circumstances are explained, and the subsequent comic reactions of the academic community are satirized, but then the story strikes an entirely different cord and its meaning deepens.

    As I say, the opening of the story is ironic, but the narrative then reveals the vacant emptiness of that very irony as the poet's widow, Harriet, emerges as the protagonist--giving the story a surprising minor key and a major lift.

    Harriet's life changes.  She comes to realize that the ironic humor bantered by her husband and about her husband were both forms of judgment, as was his former seriousness:

    "She thought of her husband's seriousness, how he wore it like a garment.  Most often his laughter had been ironic or sarcastic or superior.  His laughter had been judgmental and, as a result, all his laughter had been serious. . ."

    She leaves the college to work in a hospice. There, she escapes her former life while working on herself.

    "Seriousness, said Harriet, often exists as something we want to show other people.  We want others to think us serious, which suggests a fear of not being sufficiently respected, of not being taken seriously.  What does seriousness get us?  It neither delays our deaths nor makes them easier to bear."

    A doctor at the hospice, after listening to her arguments, asks, "What is the opposite of seriousness?  Frivolity?"

    "Most literally, perhaps, but I think the opposite of such a seriousness is love, because love accepts all possibilities, whereas seriousness only accepts what it sees as correct.  Perhaps I work at the hospice for purely selfish reasons.  I work to improve the quality of my love."

    "That seems pretty serious," the doctor says.

    "I'm not against seriousness.  I'm against the earnestness of seriousness.  I want to go beyond it.  I want seriousness to be an  element in my life and not its reason for being."

    The story ends after a conversation Harriet has with one of the patients at the hospice, which evokes laughter:

    "It was neither a guffaw nor the hysterical shriek of nervousness.  It was the laugh of someone whose seriousness had been overthrown, the laugh that erases every other concern."

    A place beyond irony or the material illusion of ego, a happy vacancy, you might say.  A cold and a broken hallelujah maybe, but a hallelujah still.

    "And doesn't this sustain us?  Doesn't it provide the strength to let us bear up our burden and continue our mortal journey?"