The Collected Stories

Despite the variety of social and regional settings, all the stories in this collection by William Humphrey share a common fascination with character under stress. In almost every instance, a troubled protagonist confronts the real world in an artful display of ingenious denial, deflection, or, simply, desperate acceptance. In “The Last Husband,” the narrator, a young suburban commuter, befriends a strange adulterer who defies his domineering wife by keeping up social appearances while taunting her with loosely guarded affairs. In “The Fauve,” an obnoxious painter, a failure at his art, tortures his pathetically naive but truly talented wife with contemptuous cruelty in public and private--all the while conceding that he cannot live without her. In these and other stories, the conflict is defused by pathos and humor.

When Humphrey turns to his native region, the central Southwest, the humor broadens and the characters rise to a scale larger than life. The hero of “The Rainmaker” is a con man who gets himself tarred and feathered in one town for not making rain and in another for making too much. In “A Home Away from Home,” a simple farm wife drives herself to exhaustion preparing gargantuan meals for her boarders, a crew drilling for oil on her husband’s land. The workers eat more than they pay for, strike useless gas instead of oil, and one of them runs off with the family’s daughter.

Humphrey is the recipient of critical acclaim for his novels of small-town American life, and his gift for close observation and his witty grasp of a uniquely American comedy of manners make him a short-story writer of considerable power.