Review of Irwin
Shaw’s Five Decades
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 3/17/06
I was a young boy when Rich Man, Poor Man became the first big miniseries that dominated network television in the mid-1970s, and it was that work, and book, written by Irwin Shaw (né Irwin Gilbert Shamforoff, February 27, 1913-May 16, 1984), that set off the miniseries craze of adapting popular works of fiction and nonfiction that dominated television for another decade, not Alex Haley’s Roots, as is popularly misperceived. As such, Irwin Shaw’s name became synonymous with other ‘popular’ mega-selling writers of that time- like John Jakes, Jeffrey Archer, and Jackie Susann, as a schlock writer of soap operatic potboilers. In this way, his literary career followed almost the same career trajectory as that of John O’Hara- a once respected ‘social realist’ writer who became a lauded literary icon who then ‘sold out’, and had the audacity to garner popular success along with his critical success, which evaporated in proportion to his ability to live affluently until he died on his Davos, Switzerland estate. How dare a writer be rewarded financially for his artistic excellence! These were the days, of course, before the gravy trains of National Endowments for the Arts grants, and their requisites that ‘good’ artists remain untainted by popular and financial success, and merely leech off the taxpayer with PC screeds, ridiculously mind-numbing work that scorns the reader, or puerile art merely intended to shock.
Yet, in reading Irwin Shaw’s Five Decades, a huge book of sixty-three of his best tales, in 756 pages of small type, written between the Great Depression years and his death, the only thing that an impartial reader can come away with is Shaw’s consistent excellence in the field. Although having gotten his start, and made his name in the pages of The New Yorker magazine, I can tell you his tales hold up better socially and artistically than far more lauded New Yorker writers like O’Hara, J.D. Salinger, John Cheever, Alice Adams, John Updike, or Ann Beattie. The earliest tales, especially, with only the omission of a few definitive words that reference their era, could have been written yesterday, and are almost as minimalist as they are realist. And there is little fat in Shaw’s tales- they are lean with the rat-a-tat-tat staccato of their sentence’s construction, and their poetry comes not from a strained contrivance of clichés, but the juxtaposition (often jarring) of the most common of things, phrases, and moments. Even though most of the stories, especially the early ones, are set in a New York City milieu, and reflect the accents and slang thereof, Shaw powerfully captures the realistic dialogue of the masses like few other writers ever have- perhaps, of published short story writers I’ve read, only Russia’s Anton Chekhov comes close, and even he tended to lean a bit more on allegory rather than the offhanded poesy that comes in real spoken dialogue, and can best be pared down by the good ear of a good writer. Not even Eugene O’Neill, at his best, could capture the American idiom as well, and perhaps only Clifford Odets did- and it’s worth noting Shaw started out as a playwright
In just doing a little background research on Shaw it was heartening to see that his staggeringly great run of tales was actually recognized (a rarity these days) with a much deserved O. Henry Award, for Walking Wounded (1944), a tale about a British soldier, named Peter, who, after a couple of years at the front, cannot remember his wife’s appearance, cannot find his commanding officer, and without leave orders cannot go home. An intriguing premise, and that good tale isn’t even in the Top 25 best tales in this volume. Among the other great tales that riddle this book are The Eighty Yard Run- Shaw wrote quite a few excellent sports tales, Borough Of Cemeteries, Sailor Off The Bremen, The Girls In Their Summer Dresses, Second Mortgage, and many others. Even just looking at many of their titles grabs a reader’s interest right away: I Stand By Dempsey, God On Friday Night, No Jury Would Convict, Stop Pushing, Rocky, Night, Birth And Opinion, The Indian In Depth Of Night, Goldilocks At Graveside, The Climate Of Insomnia, The Sunny Banks Of The River Lethe, Whispers In Bedlam, and Where All Things Fair And Wise Descend, along with some of the aforementioned titles. Has any published writer ever written tales with more provocative yet poetic titles? And the substance of the tales do the titles justice.
The lean prose and great dialogue never brocade into sententious didacticism, and are distillations of the sorts of moments we all recall. There is no drippy nor dippy sentimentality, but tons of raw emotion. Some of the tales are harrowing, and wear a reader out, but in the good emotional way, not the eye-blearying way that much of the ponderous prose of the Victorian era did. Yes, as a working class immigrant Jew, himself, Shaw’s early tales have a preponderance of these characters, but Shaw is not as prone to mythologizing the dull minutia of Jewish life as Isaac Bashevis Singer was. Instead, he is after the American pug, the American mook, the American man in his purest 20th Century form- be it deranged cabbies, lowlife criminals, professional athletes, unrepentant skirtchasers, or effete elitists. His tales are perhaps the most character driven tales published in the last century. Almost ever story has at least one memorable character, and usually more than one. Plot is never primary, although he is very adept at molding it to the natural consequences of his characters’ circumstances, outlooks, and actions, especially in dealing realistically with the ethical consequences of his characters’ actions. Part of this stems from the fact that Shaw came of age as a writer during the nadir of the 20th Century- the Great Depression and World War Two, where paranoia, struggle, and a need for vigilance seemed neverending, due to the vagaries that define real life.
In ‘March On, March On Down The Field’, the tale follows a pro football team with a miserly owner, who cuts his players’ pay when they do not sell out games, and even tries to save money by not giving them helmets. Still, he expects them to play hard. In Small Saturday a man meets the girl who will become his wife only after both of them have missed out on a chance to meet others, and a bevy of other minor incidents that have shaped their future. Act Of Faith deals with Anti-Semitism and power during World War Two. In Second Mortgage a poor Brooklyn family cannot pay their own bills and are literally penniless. Yet, they get weekly visits from an elderly widow who holds the second mortgage on the property. She sits for hours in their living room, almost trying to will them to have money to give to her. The rest of the tale follows the family’s turn from sympathy toward her to dread to not even bothering to answer their doorbell when she rings. The Man Who Married A French Wife follows a couple on a trip to France, just after the Algerian rebellion, and the husband's jealousy over his thinking his wife is involved with a man he sees on the street. God Was Here But He Left Early follows a woman in Paris who tries to have a one night stand, but instead, picks up a spanking fetishist. Another story that is remarkable is The Indian In Depth Of Night, wherein a man encounters an odd character in Central Park, who claims to be an Indian, who veers between wanting to mug him and acting like a child. In Noises In The City a man’s love and appreciation for his pregnant wife is reborn after he meets another man whose wife was murdered. I Stand By Dempsey follows sports fans arguing over who is the better fighter, ex-Heavyweight Champion Jack Dempsey, or then-current champion Joe Louis. The conversation is so real that one needs no descriptions of place nor person, it could just stand alone and have its dialogue be read as a radio play. Tip On A Dead Jockey follows an American in Paris who meets a stranger at the races, who gives him tips on horses, then offers him a chance to score big doing something illegal. Whispers In Bedlam follows the fluke lucky street of a mediocre pro football player who is losing his hearing, has an operation to fix it, and becomes a great player, only to have his hearing hurt again, and slide back down to anonymity as an insurance salesman. Along the way this tour de force deals with infidelity, impotence, the Vietnam War, and gambling addiction. The Inhabitants Of Venus follows a Jew who sees a German at a ski resort and believes it’s the man who left him to die as a child. He ponders vengeance until he sees the circumstances of the German.
The Climate Of Insomnia is a terrific portrait of a mind crumbling due to lack of sleep. The Sunny Banks Of The River Lethe goes even further, detailing in its first half the exactitude of a character with an incredible memory, only to, in its latter half, detail the effects of senility, decades before Alzheimer’s Disease became a concern, or even got its name. The tale is especially effective, as it ends with the character wholly forgetting his life, starting with his wife:
He awoke early, conscious that it was a sunny day outside. He lay in bed feeling warm and healthy. There was a noise from the next bed, and he looked across the little space. There was a woman in the next bed. She was middle-aged and wearing curlers and she was snoring and Hugh was certain he had never seen her before in his life. He got out of bed silently, dressed quickly, and went out into the sunny day.
Without thinking about it, he walked to the subway station. He watched the people hurrying toward the trains and he knew that he probably should join them. He had the feeling that somewhere in the city to the south, in some tall building on a narrow street, his arrival was expected. But he knew that no matter how hard he tried he would never be able to find the building. Buildings these days, it occurred to him suddenly, were too much like other buildings.
He walked briskly away from the subway station in the direction of the river. The river was shining in the sun and there was ice along the banks. A boy of about twelve, in a plaid mackinaw and a wool hat, was sitting on a bench and regarding the river. there were some schoolbooks, tied with a leather strap, on the frozen ground at his feet.
Hugh sat down next to the boy. ‘Good morning,’ he said pleasantly.
‘Good morning,’ said the boy.
‘What’re you doing?’ Hugh asked.
‘I’m counting the boats,’ the boy said. ‘Yesterday I counted thirty-two boats. Not counting ferries. I don’t count ferries.’
Hugh nodded. He put his hands in his pockets and looked down over the river. By five o’clock that afternoon he and the boy had counted forty-three boats, not including ferries. He couldn’t remember having had a nicer day.
Now, imagine such a scene, of a character with Alzheimer’s, being published today, in a PC drenched ‘disease of the month’ tale. How many clichés, how many sentimental images, how many bathetic platitudes would occupy the same space that this crisp, lean set of words does? Look how such a seemingly inert sentence like, ‘He couldn’t remember having had a nicer day,’ rises far above its naked statement merely by its placement at the end of this series of events. That’s the sort of ‘magic’ only a great writer can impart to a reader.
Stop Pushing, Rocky, follows a good, solid palooka fighter named Joey who has agreed to carry a bum named Rocky for ten rounds, in order to satisfy mobsters who bet on him (as well as betting against himself), then nearly blowing it when the tomato can really thinks he can win and starts whaling on him. The not too bright boxer faces the dilemma of choosing between his life and his pride in accepting a beating from the bum even though he knows he’ll win, but look bad in doing so- with even the referee suspecting a fix. It is simply one of the greatest boxing stories ever penned, and after making it through a round where he nearly accidentally KO’d Rocky, three rounds shy of the mobsters’ demands, he has to explain to his trainer how he had to restrain himself from hurting the lesser boxer:
‘I didn’t hit him hard,’ Joey protested. ‘It was strictly a medium punch. He got a chin like a movie star. Like Myrna Loy. He shouldn’t oughta be in this business. He should wait on customers in a store. In a dairy. Butter and eggs.’
Nothing poetic, nothing clichéd, just pure realism emanates from Shaw’s pen. In one of his most justifiably famed tales, The Girls In Their Summer Dresses, Michael and Frances Loomis seem the typical married couple that has no future, and should never have gotten together in the first place. They constantly bicker over his, to her, annoying habit of ogling every pretty girl he sees. Look at this excerpt of dialogue, and look how realistic and eternal it is, then think of how many times you or someone you know have either had this conversation, or heard others in the midst of having it, at a restaurant, a party, or a family gathering:
‘Sure,’ he said. He took his eyes off the hatless girl with the dark hair, cut dancer-style, like a helmet, who was walking past him with the self-conscious strength and grace dancers have. She was walking without a coat and she looked very solid and strong and her belly was flat, like a boy’s, under her skirt, and her hips swung boldly because she was a dancer and also because she knew Michael was looking at her. She smiled a little to herself as she went past and Michael noticed all these things before he looked back at his wife. ‘Sure,’ he said, ‘we’re going to watch the Giants and we’re going to eat steak and we’re going to see a French picture. How do you like that?’
‘That’s it,’ Frances said flatly. ‘That’s the program for the day. Or maybe you’d just rather walk up and down Fifth Avenue.’
‘You always look at other women,’ Frances said. ‘At every damn woman in the city of New York.’
‘Oh, come now,’ Michael said, pretending to joke. ‘Only pretty ones. And, after all, how many pretty women are there in New York? Seventeen?’
‘More. At least you seem to think so. Wherever you go.’
‘Not the truth. Occasionally, maybe, I look at a woman as she passes. In the street. I admit, perhaps in the street I look at a woman once in a while....’
‘Everywhere,’ Frances said. ‘Every damned place we go. Restaurants, subways, theaters, lectures, concerts.’
‘Now, darling,’ Michael said. ‘I look at everything. God gave me eyes and I look at women and men and subway excavations and moving pictures and the little flowers of the field. I casually inspect the universe.’
‘You ought to see the look in your eye,’ Frances said, ‘as you casually inspect the universe on Fifth Avenue.’
‘I’m a happily married man.’ Michael pressed her elbow tenderly, knowing what he was doing. ‘Example for the whole twentieth century, Mr. and Mrs. Mike Loomis.’
‘You mean it?’
‘Are you really happily married?’
‘Sure,’ Michael said, feeling the whole Sunday morning sinking like lead inside him. ‘Now what the hell is the sense in talking like that?’
‘I would like to know.’ Frances walked faster now, looking straight ahead, her face showing nothing, which was the way she always managed it when she was arguing or feeling bad.
‘I’m wonderfully happily married,’ Michael said patiently. ‘I am the envy of all men between the ages of fifteen and sixty in the state of New York.’
They continue to bicker, as the tale proceeds, and glumly head toward a
bar, where they reach a détente, of sorts. Yet, the ending is not the expected
that a lesser writer would give you. There is no sudden making up between them,
nor is their unsettled bitterness. Look at the realistic ways the characters
deal with each other, their flaws, and those of their partner’s. Here is how
the tale ends:
Frances stopped crying then. Two or three snuffles into the handkerchief and she put it away and her face didn't tell anything to anybody. ‘At least do me one favor,’ she said.
‘Stop talking about how pretty this woman is, or that one. Nice eyes, nice breasts, a pretty figure, good voice,’ she mimicked his voice. ‘Keep it to yourself. I’m not interested.’
‘Excuse me.’ Michael waved to the waiter. ‘I’ll keep it to myself.’
Frances flicked the corner of her eyes. ‘Another brandy,’ she told the waiter.
‘Two,’ Michael said.
‘Yes, ma’am, yes, sir,’ said the waiter, backing away.
Frances regarded him coolly across the table. ‘Do you want me to call the Stevensons?’ she asked. ‘It’ll be nice in the country.’
‘Sure,’ Michael said. ‘Call them up.’
She got up from the table and walked across the room toward the telephone. Michael watched her walk, thinking, what a pretty girl, what nice legs.
That final sentence says it all. Despite his terminal state of being an
unrepentant hound, it’s manifest that Michael still loves, and more
importantly, to both him and her, still lusts for his wife. They are not doomed,
after all. Real. Very real.
Another of Shaw’s famed and great tales is Sailor Off The Bremen,
which deals with working class tensions right before the Second World War, where
a group of Communist-sympathizing longshoreman set up the steward of a German
ship for a beating, in retaliation for getting beaten up by goons when they
protested at a German Nazi vessel’s being berthed. The tale is filled with
brutality, but as relevant today, as ever. Just switch the beaten German with a
Moslem attacked after 9/11, or during this latest war, and the tale rings as
modern as it does clarion. So does the eternal apathy of the ‘authorities’
as the end of this tale sums up:
Much later, in the
hospital, Preminger stood over the bed in which Lueger lay, unconscious, in
splints and bandages.
‘Yes,’ he said to the
detective and the doctor. ‘That’s our man. Lueger. A steward. The papers on
him are correct.’
‘Who do you think done
it?’ the detective asked in a routine voice. ‘Did he have any enemies?’
‘Not that I know of,’
Preminger said. ‘He was a very popular boy. Especially with the ladies.’
The detective started out of the ward. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘he
won’t be a very popular boy when he gets out of here.’
Preminger shook his head.
‘You must be very careful in a strange city,’ he said to the interne, and
went back to the ship.
Preminger knows full well why the beating occurred and who did it, and
the detective either knows he knows and does not care, or does not care to push
the matter, having more important things to do. The admonition by
Preminger that ends the tale is very chilling in its matter of factness.
Yet, this sort of excellence is so frequent in Shaw’s tales that a
reader, too used to the garbage that has been published the last few decades in
major magazines and by major presses, might almost take its almost routine
excellence for granted. But, just reread the selections quoted above, and I
challenge any reader to find passages of comparable length and overall quality-
poetry, concision, realism, colloquialism- in any of the works of PC Elitist
writers like Maya Angelou, Jhumpa Lahiri, Yann Martel, or Mary Gaitskill, or
Post-Modern dreck like Rick Moody, David Foster Wallace, Donald Barthelme, or
Dave Eggers. In short, there is more in the mere page or so of quotations than
in the combined career works of all the above named writers. That Irwin Shaw is
not recalled and more importantly hailed as a great writer, if only for these
masterpieces of short fiction, while the dregs named above are well known, is a
crime against literature, and yes, Irwin Shaw wrote literature- high literature-
in these great short stories.
The stories are so well-wrought with the trimness of necessity, and possess a grit and realism that Ernest Hemingway could never equal, even in the best of his hit and miss tales- and are just as poetic, if not more, and certainly more consistently poetic, with the poetry of concision in the construction, not the mere phrasing. Again, look how inherently straightforward sentences like, ‘He couldn’t remember having had a nicer day,’, ‘Michael watched her walk, thinking, what a pretty girl, what nice legs,’, and ‘You must be very careful in a strange city,’ seem, yet how poetic they become by their mere placement. Shaw does this over and over again in these tales, which is a feat that writers like John O’Hara, or J.D. Salinger, his contemporaries, at their best, could never do with any consistency. Yes, some of his later tales are too long, but never ungodly in length, and they never become as airy as the lesser tales of many far more lauded writers in the Pantheon do. I urge any reader who wants to be entertained or enlightened, and also learn a good deal of what America in the last century was like, to seek out the short stories of Irwin Shaw. There’s no better place to start than with these Five Decades to get the whole century.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Hackwriters website.]
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