James T. Farrell’s stories, because of their often graphic language and action and because, perhaps, of their relatively uneven quality, are not often anthologized. His best work comes from the early collections such as Calico Shoes, Guillotine Party, and $1,000 a Week. When his stories remain within the realm of his Chicago youth, he is at his best—even later stories set in Chicago reflect the tough vibrance evident in the likes of “Willie Collins,” “The Triumph of Willie Collins,” and “Saturday Night.”
Farrell’s characters never seem fabricated. They strut and boast. They cringe at frightening things, and they suffer from the inexorable progress of time—perhaps the dominant theme in Farrell’s work. Never conventionally literary, the real nature of Farrell’s stories makes them compelling if not always tasteful and appealing. There is no varnish on Farrell’s rough exterior. The reader is expected to accept the stories in their raw, immediate sense.
The individual is the unsteady center of Farrell’s stories; a large number of his stories are almost vignettes of individuals as they function in daily life. It is this attention to the individual which sets Farrell’s work apart. Farrell’s universe does not admit of predestiny or fortune or, despite his rich Irish Catholic milieu, divine intervention; his individual succeeds or fails by virtue of his own efforts and abilities. The only force beyond the control of the individual is time, and, along with the freedom of the individual will, time rules Farrell’s work. There is a consistent determination on the part of Farrell’s characters to recapture the past, elude the present, or rush into the future. In each instance, despite their strivings, they inevitably fail. Farrell does not celebrate the failure, but he portrays it honestly, and failure sets the tone of his stories.
“When Boyhood Dreams Come True”
Both of Farrell’s major themes are projected in “When Boyhood Dreams Come True.” Tom Finnegan, a man trying to understand and recapture his past, fails in a dream world which is reminiscent of the Inferno (c. 1320), The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), and the Catholic catechism, but Finnegan, on awakening, forgets the dream except for the one synthetic revelation that “almost explained the meaning of life.” Finnegan is made aware that “the past was dead, gone. All his life had led up to this minute. Only this minute was real. The past was unreal. It was gone.” Finnegan fails to recapture the past and, at the end of the story, he is uncertain of his future, but the moment of reality, the now, is left for him to manipulate—to use or misuse as he is able. It is this juxtaposition of the impact of the past and of failure on which Farrell thrives.
Joe Eliot, in the story of the same name, struggles with the past in a similar fashion, but, unlike Finnegan, he is trapped—hamstrung by his failure and frustration. What Joe calls failures, however, are merely results of his inability to cope with things over which he has no control. When Joe refuses to ride home on the same car with this supervisor, he reflects “contempt,” and the reader sees him as “uninterested,” “bored,” and passive to the point of giving his unfinished evening paper to his supervisor to get rid of him. Joe’s reaction to his supervisor is typical of his relationship with humankind. His contempt for and passive reaction to other men are direct results of his frustration with past failure and himself.
In the second of five parts, Joe sinks into a reminiscence of his past which begins with bittersweet memories of the Seine in 1918 while he was in World War I and with remorseful recriminations against his wife, who died of peritonitis while he was in France. The reader learns that Joe has a Harvard University degree, was an All-American halfback, and felt that he “could have been something big.” The reader also learns that he has had a break with his rich father (probably over Joe’s marriage) and that he refuses a reconciliation despite overtures from his father. Farrell presents Joe as bitter and lonely but does not demand the reader’s sympathy or pity. Joe deserves no pity in a situation he will not attempt to alter. The narrator declares of Joe: “He hadn’t fitted into the world, and he didn’t give a good goddamn.”
After eating in a second-rate establishment, Joe walks through the Loop in Chicago. The narrator makes a point of coloring the scene with natural commentary about the soft night and the sunset, but Joe is unaffected by it all until, as he convinces himself he is a “failure,” he suddenly notices “as if it were a discovery, a sky streaming with stars that were radiant on the surface of a deep blue.” While the vision touches Joe, he belittles the experience and himself for standing on the corner gawking at the stars, “but he walked with the happy feeling that he just sucked a flashing moment from the weltering insignificance of human life.” The revelation is only momentary, and the insignificance he attributes to human life brings him back to his “failure.” He wanders to Lake Michigan musing over his lost promise, his dead wife and daughter, and the fact that “mistakes could not be rectified.” He even berates death for being a “messy conclusion to a mess.”
The moment of illumination, Farrell seems to tell the reader, is enough to remind Joe of something other than his self-imposed failure and frustration, but it is not enough to draw him out of himself—it cannot save him from himself. The sojourn beside Lake...
(The entire section is 2312 words.)