Short fiction is a difficult medium, perhaps the most demanding of the literary art forms. Within a relatively brief space, the successful short-story writer must make believers of us. Through the spell cast by compelling psychological delineation, the creation of an evocative atmosphere or sense of place, or a thematically resonant pattern of events, dialogue, and descriptive detail, through all or some combination of these elements, the writer of a short story must bring readers into the world as he sees it and stir their hearts and minds in such a way as to make them feel that they have observed or been made a part of something that is or could be true. There is no disguising a weak short story; neither cleverness of craftsmanship nor a way with words can validate a story with a facile, artificial heart.
All of the short stories in Evan S. Connell’s collection Saint Augustine’s Pigeon are well written and well structured; and most of them deal significantly and compellingly with some aspect of the human situation. Five long stories comprise the core of the collection. Although they are not equal in merit, they are among the most interesting because, when considered together, they reflect a good deal of the range of Connell’s vision as well as his artistic strengths and limitations.
Two of the longer stories focus on a highly romantic protagonist who has turned his back on the conventional patterns of society while three treat a middle-aged insurance expert who has outwardly conformed to these conventions but, at the same time, kept his mind and spirit free.
The character of J. D., the protagonist of “The Walls of Avila” and “The Palace of the Moorish Kings,” is seen through the point of view of one of his boyhood friends. All of the friends with whom J. D. has corresponded over the years have, like him, dreamed of escaping in one way or another from the humdrum patterns of small-town life. Only J. D., however, has had the courage, enterprise, and initiative to live out the dreams of his youth. He has wandered the face of the earth, living by his wits and savoring the variety and fascination of life, while his friends have hardened into middle age and, in various ways, followed conventional tracks of experience. In “The Walls of Avila,” J. D. has returned for a brief visit after ten years of roaming over, and sojourning in, exotic places to meet mingled feelings of fascination, envy, disapproval, and resentment. J. D. discovers that it is impossible to make his friends aware of how the perspective of distance may remove the film of familiarity that hides natural beauty and leads to a recognition of the essential poignance of life. Their minds remain as closed and impenetrable as Avila, an ancient town in Spain whose walls become a symbol of what is absolute, unchanging, and indestructible on its own terms.
“The Palace of the Moorish Kings” focuses on the reaction of J. D.’s friends to his decision to give up his glamorous, free-spirited life and settle down to a career and marriage. Precisely what J. D. is returning to is made evident in the banal conversation which his friends carry on with him when he calls long distance to announce his plans. The final act of humiliation for J. D. lies in the necessity of his turning for help in finding a job to the most successful and the most prosaic of all his friends, who cannot resist the opportunity to chastise him, with grasshopper-and-ant triteness, for having the audacity to live out a boyhood dream. Ironically enough, however, the dominant feeling of his friends is not that of smug self-righteous gratification but of a sense of loss. The end of J. D.’s unconventional career signals the end of their youth.
The three long stories “Arcturus,” “Otto and the Magi,” and the titular “Saint Augustine’s Pigeon” concern themselves with the mind and experiences of a protagonist who is outwardly the opposite of J. D. This set of stories contains the most powerful and ambitious efforts in the collection, although they are not all equally successful. The masterpiece of the set, and indeed of the collection, is “Arcturus,” which brilliantly celebrates the virtues of intelligence and strength of character. This powerful story presents us with a variety of vividly drawn characters: a small boy, crafty in his encroachments upon the conventions and good will of the adult world; two hunters who bring the chill of death briefly to the drawing room; an artificially exotic ballerina who lacks soul; a beautiful dying wife and mother who reaches out desperately in an attempt to recapture something glamorous from her past; and a minor diplomat whose charm and sophistication mask a superficial heart and spirit. At the center of all these characters is...