An Evening Performance, like the novels for which George Garrett is more widely known, is solidly in the mode of realistic fiction. These thirty-nine short stories, gathered from his first four collections with the addition of seven stories not previously published in books, touch only occasionally on the fantastic and, for the most part, include only those elements of the grotesque that are found in ordinary existence.
Unlike such contemporaries as Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, or Thomas Pynchon, Garrett uses short stories to present his sense of what contemporary life is like for ordinary individuals; for the most part, his characters find themselves in ordinary situations. There is no questioning here of the nature of reality, nor does Garrett use fiction as a vehicle for imaginative speculation. His subject is America, and his characters are representative of Americans in the second half of the twentieth century.
Garrett’s subjects are also, in most of these stories, conventional. Several stories deal with the noncombat side of army life. Among the early fictions, a significant number deal with the trials of adolescence, while others focus on sensitive women trapped in relationships with insensitive men. In the more recent stories, the latter type is replaced by stories of failed marriages in which neither partner understands the needs and deeper yearnings of the other. Garrett is not an experimenter with style, either. His prose is clear, with occasional descriptive passages of considerable power and with frequent use of realistic dialogue. When he makes use of symbols, there is little confusion about what the symbols are intended to suggest.
Much of what constitutes the strength of Garrett’s short fiction, as well as one of its besetting problems, can be seen in the story “The Gun and the Hat.” This is a straightforward narrative with touches of humor and at least two interesting characterizations. The premise is interesting: A man abandons a long-held principle to defend his not-very-appealing child. The protagonist of “The Gun and the Hat,” a solid but not very successful farmer, renounces his lifelong hatred of guns and violence with the intention of shooting a schoolteacher who has held the farmer’s obese son up to ridicule. When the farmer finds that the teacher is a mousy, inoffensive man who clearly had not had malicious intentions, the father’s anger dissipates; he fires the gun into some shrubbery, throws the gun away, and drives off with his son. In the end, character determines action, despite the pressure of circumstance. Yet, in a way, “The Gun and the Hat” typifies one disturbing aspect of Garrett’s method in these stories: He seems determined to avoid climactic endings. In almost every story, whatever the potential for violence or for life-changing events for the characters, the endings are muted to the point of anticlimax.
Even in a story such as “The Test,” in which three adolescent friends construct a crude diving outfit and test it, with the last and most adventurous of the three drowning, the ending of the story is muted. One of the surviving boys says to the other, after the funeral, that the conditions of life cannot be changed, and they shake hands and part. Garrett seems determined to suggest possibilities of drama and then to insist that life is not dramatic. This is clearly a defensible view of human life, but it is not one that makes for exciting short fiction.
One story that does not avoid dramatic possibilities is “Pretty Birdie,” which deals with Henry, an ugly, misshapen young man, the object of cruel humor and ridicule as he grows up, who leaves a small town to join the army and returns years later with a beautiful German bride. The town women, in their jealousy, correctly guess that she had been a prostitute. Inge does not join the life of the town’s women and would not be permitted to if she wanted. Henry works efficiently as an auto mechanic but is ostracized because his wife’s beauty has...
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