An Evening Performance

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

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...

(The entire section is 1648 words.)

Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Although “An Evening Performance” possesses enough development of plot and character to be classified as a short story rather than a vignette, it may be referred to fairly as a sketch. As the title indicates, the story focuses on a single event, one evening’s performance; all delineation of characters, all lines of action lead toward the one moment that is the heart of the story. In pointing his reader toward that moment and the lesson contained in it, Garrett writes in the style of the poet that he is. He counters richly evocative language with sparely outlined action.

The story begins with the fiery image of the poster, and as time passes the image dims, “teased by the wind and weather, faded by the still summer-savaged sun and the first needling rains of autumn, the red letters blurring and dribbling away, fuzzy now as if they had been written by a shaking finger in something perishable like blood.” When the three people suddenly appear in town, their images rise suddenly in the story, but the reader receives a description of them that seems merely physical, the recollected observations of a narrator who was witness to the scene. The characters remain nameless with the exception of the presciently named Stella (meaning “star”) and Angel. Clearly, the reader must derive his or her understanding of the story’s events from the descriptive details that the narrator supplies.

The performance itself is the point toward which the narrator is always working. The relating of the act takes only a few pages, but those few paragraphs contain more specifically recounted actions than any other part of the story. Following the performance, the narrator describes local reaction summarily and focuses on a detailed vision, which he projects into the imagination of faceless local women who possess true understanding of the performance’s purpose. They see themselves descending in triumph from a “topless tower into a lake of flame.”


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Booklist. LXXXII, October 1, 1985, p. 191.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 29, 1985, p. 14.

The New York Times Book Review. XC, October 6, 1985, p. 28.

Washington Post Book World. XV, September 15, 1985, p. 5.