Saturday, December 22, 2012

You, at the Wall

If you were to allow the metaphor of fiction being like birds, the novella would occupy the perch between the short story and the novel. The metaphor suggests all three formats being comfortable with their word lengths.  This also suggests the fiction family is a happy family.  Best not to go there, not now, at any rate.

Let’s stay with the novella having more thematic material and more of a resolved ending than a short story, but less of either than a novel.  Let’s also stay with the widespread affection for the novella felt by writers, readers, and critics.  Let’s get personal by mentioning two modern novellas published a tad over twenty years apart, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, and Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus.  Each is in its way a gem, demonstrating the near perfect blend of theme, setting, circumstance, and dramatic payoff.

Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street, via its quality and length, is surely a novella; so too, arguably, Muriel Spark’s memorable The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.  All you have to do is start running through a list of preferred readings; the novella begins to appear with greater regularity than you thought.  Kate Chopin, for instance, whose The Awakening appeared at the tail end of the nineteenth century, made its way into the world a few years before the novella that got you thinking about where this is going.  James Joyce published one collection of short stories, Dubliners.  The last selection, “The Dead,” was arguably more than a short story; it was in fact a novella.  For all the times he enjoyed getting into a longer narrative, Saul Bellow found that exact and exquisite pace and economy with Seize the Day. Not to forget Melville’s Bartelby, nor indeed to forget the fact that for all it evoked  the sense of being longer, The Heart of Darkness, Conrad’s epic exploration, was a novella.

Basically, you’re coming from thinking of Of Mice and Men to have reached that place where, however often you reread it, the narrative sings artistry to you, causes you to rejoice that you’ve chosen this particular craft to follow rather than any other.  That one novella raises the bar so high for you that for what is left of your working life, you think of it, strive to do your best, and realize what a standard that work is for you to aim at.

You’re also coming from another great favorite, more in its way reminiscent of Mark Twain, yet another bright star in your personal heaven.  William Faulkner’s opening narrative for his short novel, The Hamlet, has been reprinted as a short story, even to the point where it is rendered in the quotation marks accorded to short stories.  “Spotted Horses.”  Yet the narrative has earned its italics; it stands alone, meriting mention with those other grand Faulkner novellas, The Old Man, and The Bear.

With the introduction of a chunk of a larger work having a stand-alone life away from the novel—the literary equivalent of giving the teenager the keys to the family car—you are almost home for this one.

Back in those measure-out-the-pennies days of your career, you maintained your subscription to Harper’s Magazine.  By the 1990s, there was less need to be so watchful.  A subscription to Harper’s was taken for granted.  By the 1990s, your interest in baseball, and in fact most sports, had retreated into the background. The October, 1992, edition of Harper’s had a tipped-in folio that brought you and baseball back for a brief fling, reminding you how something as relative in its transitory nature as a baseball game could with such ease and grace become an iconic moment, where something of passing note becomes a symbol, a metaphor, a vibrant, thundering bit of heraldry, unique, separate, but joining such evocations as, say, Aaron Copeland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” as a tribute to the humanity you happen to be a part of.

Don De Lillo’s venture into the novella comes in the form of what was the opening to his novel, Underworld.  The title of this omniscient point of view masterpiece is Pafko at the Wall, its subtitle, The Shot Heard Round the World.  Consider:  October 3, 1951.

Let’s talk Harlem, say between 157th and 159th Streets.  Eighth Avenue.  Harlem River.  Coogan’s Hollow.  The Polo Grounds.  Let’s talk the final day of the 1951 National league season, with two teams tied for the right to represent the National League in the World Series.  Let’s look at a three-game play-off between the archrivals, the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants.  Giants take the first game, but the Dodgers humiliate the Giants in game two.

We are now in the bottom of the ninth inning, the Dodgers up by one, Sal “The Barber” Maglie snapping off sliders and curves, keeping the Giants at bay.  But The Barber has tired.  Two Giants are on base.  Bring in Ralph Branca to pitch to Bobby Thompson.

Andy Pafko is the Dodger left fielder, the symbolic focal point of the novella bearing his name, particularly since, after Branca bears down, pitches a breaking ball to the batter, Bobby Thompson, there was a brief meeting between Thompson’s ash Louisville Slugger bat and the pitch from Branca.  The ball is met, lifted, propelled down the left field line.  Three hundred fifteen feet away, hunched against the left field wall, Andy Pafko watches the flight of the ball as it sails into two eternities.  One of these will carry the Giants into the 1951 World Series.  The other eternity will send both teams as well as a supporting cast featuring Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason, the restaurateur, Toots Shoor, and J. Edgar Hoover into that timeless space where literature lives.

Pafko at the Wall is about as much relative to baseball as notes are to music or words to poetry; it is a record of humanity, the games and standards and anarchy of the human experience; it is the history coming from something of relative shortness—say forty thousand words—made all the larger from what it implies as well as what it describes.

You are the kid who sneaked into the game, you are Sinatra, razzing Gleason, you are Gleason’s fans, after him to re-run some of his famous lines, you are Sinatra’s fans, looking to him for his take and approval, you are Toots Shoor, telling Sinatra to calm down, you are J. Edgar Hoover, learning that the Russians have tested an atomic bomb.

You are Andy Pafko, the Dodgers left fielder, watching a small, horsehide sphere, sailing its way into history.

But most important of all, you are a reader, reading one of the most exquisite literary forms.


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