(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

There is a determined optimism at the heart of many of Barry Targan’s stories, perhaps best summed up in the title of one of his collections, Surviving Adverse Seasons. His middle-aged male characters are possessed of a quiet integrity that makes them survivors regardless of the adversity they face. Integrity is an important element in Targan’s writing; he has spoken of his awe of great authors who write with honor and authenticity, feeling that to write with such “integrity was one of the finest things a human being could do with a life.”

Targan’s characters are often driven by a passionate engagement in a meaningful action, a deep-seated desire and commitment to give oneself wholly to a task, craft, or art. Many of his characters, without the aid of dogma or social rules, develop and abide by their own quiet codes of conduct, and they manage to succeed in spite of the odds against them. As a result, the reader is irresistibly aligned with these men, for it is clear that they are honestly engaged in doing the best they can under adverse circumstances.

“Harry Belten and the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto”

Targan’s best-known story, anthologized several times, is the most representative expression of his central theme—one’s passionate and honest devotion to a creative act. Harry Belten is a middle-aged man who has worked in a hardware store in a small town in southwest New York for thirty-two years. A reliable man whose “life had closed in upon him quickly,” Harry has but one interest other than his family and his work—the violin, which, with modest lessons, he started learning how to play in 1941. More than two decades later, Harry has decided to take more serious professional lessons and to stage his own concert—renting a hall and paying for an orchestra—even though he and everyone else know he is not a concert-caliber violinist.

Among the pieces he plans to play at the concert is the Felix Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, a particularly difficult piece that Harry has been studying for the past eighteen years. Although his wife tells him they can ill afford the concert and people kid him and try to discourage him, Harry is determined. When the orchestra he has hired tries to cancel, he fights them for breach of contract and wins. When his family insists he see a psychiatrist, he agrees and successfully convinces the doctor that he should give the concert. He even manages to get his professional teacher, who has doubted him from the beginning, to fully support him.

The success of Targan’s story depends on the irresistibility of Harry Belten himself, whose quiet and dignified determination, humility, and courage put the reader so much on his side that at the end of the story when he is ready to play the Mendelssohn piece, the reader waits breathlessly, fingers crossed, silently cheering him on. The tension is at its highest when one of Harry’s strings loses the exact tautness needed, forcing him to try to play all the notes on that one string slightly off while playing the notes on the other three strings correctly.

Although Harry plays the worst finale to the Mendelssohn concerto ever played with a real orchestra before the a live audience, it is enough to make his teacher almost weep with pride. When Harry’s family and friends cheer and shout for an “encore,” Harry tunes his violin and plays one encore and then another. It is one of the most delightfully fulfilling conclusions in modern short fiction.


Highly praised and often anthologized, “Dominion” is another Targan story that focuses on the integrity and honest courage of one man. When the central...

(The entire section is 1526 words.)