About My Table is Nicholas Delbanco’s first volume of short stories, though he is the author of ten novels and a biographical study of writers in community, Group Portrait: Conrad, Crane, Ford, James, and Wells (1982). Reviewers of Delbanco’s novels have placed him squarely in the modernist tradition, commenting on his emphasis on fictional techniques, poetic style, verbal agility, and sometimes structural discontinuity.
Delbanco’s short stories, too, are thoroughly modernist in character, the surfaces rendered with care, the characters revealed through ironic juxtapositions, the situations ordinary but where ordinariness takes on symbolic dimension by virtue of its commonality. In fact, when read in sequence, the stories take on a dreary repetitiousness. There is a sameness not only about the characters and the point of view but also in the very structure, the skeleton of the pieces. One is struck by the fact that the first five stories are all exactly twenty pages long; the remaining four stories do not stray far from this model, numbering twenty-four, thirty, twenty-four, and sixteen pages respectively. The fifth story, “Ostinato,” is the only one where point of view shifts from third-person limited to the male protagonist to third-person omniscient. The climax of each story occurs within one to two pages to the end, and each story is divided into sections with such regularity as to suggest a wearisome and soporific monotony. Nevertheless, this may be the point of it all—an indirect revelation of a burdensome past forever giving way to an expected future ending in nothingness.
The title piece, “About My Table,” is the concluding story in the volume. It begins:Death visited him daily. He did what he could to deny it but could not avert his eyes. Headlines blazoned and newscasters announced it: bombs and strangulations and cancer were the news. Arson increased. The alarm in his smoke detectors at home whistled at him shrilly for no apparent reason in the night.
It ends:He set himself to comfort her. Death visited him nightly. It comes when it will come. It could be a furnace malfunction, allergic reaction, rabid bat, oncoming drunk in a van in his lane, suicide, undiagnosed leukemia, handgun in a shopping mall, pilot error, stroke, the purposive assault of some unrecognized opponent, earth, air, water, flame.
In between the first and last paragraphs are references to war, to slaughter, to torture, to revolution, to frigid weather with frost six feet deep, to the corpses of rats in basements, to three deaths, each one touching the protagonist, Daniel, more deeply. Along with the “male” world of “consequential” events foremost in Daniel’s consciousness, however, is a “female world imaged in the birthday party prepared by Daniel’s wife, Ann, for their four-year-old daughter, Adriana. There are sixteen women and nine little girls. The women cause Daniel to feel out of place. The little girls play “pass the apple” and “musical chairs” but cannot quite manage the latter. They display little competitive sense, and Daniel and Ann make them all winners. The cake is in the shape of a Tootsie Roll two feet long. One of Adriana’s candles, the fifth one, is a trick candle and will not blow out. “It’s for good luck,” Daniel tells his daughter, but to his wife he says: “These beautiful, clean children ... I wish that this could last.” It will, his wife tells him, “in memories,” “in photographs.”
Daniel is a free-lance journalist, but he takes no comfort in the memories he will leave behind. He recalls his wedding day and the detour he and his wife took before going to the reception, but though this moment with his wife has remained vivid to him in...
(The entire section is 1539 words.)