The Anarchists' Convention

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

This collection of stories is animated by a cast of characters of rich and fascinating diversity. They are not attractive characters, at least not in the usual sense of being people one would like to know. In a success-oriented society, as the United States is, the losers are by definition a repellent lot. And these are stories about the losers, the people operating outside the guidelines for success, the people lacking access to the mainstream middle class, or opting out for one reason or another. They are anarchists, by choice or by circumstance, living in a state of confusion or disorder and at odds with the mores and rules of society. Some are victims, caught up in a web of circumstances beyond their control and struggling for survival in a grim and absurdly cruel world where one may be first rejected and then punished for being an outcast. Those who are not victims are the defiant ones, the people who turn their backs on the social order and their prescribed role to seek a different way—to follow a dream.

This book of stories is truly an anarchists’ convention. A stunning assortment of losers is gathered together here, where we may join them in their stories for an interlude of revelation, an episode of crisis, or a brief moment of compassionate understanding. The fifteen stories in this collection are divided into three groups. The first group, comprising six stories, is a kaleidoscope of impressions of a remarkably diverse group of characters. The jungles of Indonesia, a town in Vietnam, and the broad expanse of the United States are the settings, but the people could be from anywhere, going anywhere. They are transients, forming brief superficial attachments, wistfully yearning for something they lack, whether it be affection, achievement, or excitement.

There is a special pathos in many of the stories, for the theme of rejection recurs again and again. Michael, in “The Cabinetmaker,” plots his furtive departure from Laura, who is ardently hopeful about a new and lasting relationship after the breakup of her marriage. Janey conquers a 7-10 split as a heroic gesture of defiance against her impending lonely old age (“The 7-10 Split”); but the reader knows, as does Janey, that the loneliness and the aging will overwhelm her in time, as they have her friend and mentor, Evelyn. The subtlety and complexity of the human spirit is also depicted well in “Schiffman’s Ape,” where the critical situation is resolved through displacement. The bowling game and the observations of the ape are the symbols of the crises and resolutions which engage these characters’ efforts. The characters are very human; their strengths are barely staunch enough to support their frailties, and their pathos is almost but not quite outweighed by their irritating ways. The excitement of these stories arises from the characters’ passionate commitment; they are totally committed, whether by choice or circumstance, to the course of events taking place. They have no reservations, no second thoughts. The outcome is thus more devastating, because, since the commitment is total, the loss is also total. Rejection, loneliness, and inadequacy are the threads from which the tales are woven. The characters are young and old and mostly poor; they share the same wistful needs, and they bear their misery with a dignity and forbearance which ennobles them.

Sayles is adept at writing about both...

(The entire section is 1392 words.)