The Best Short Stories of Frank Norris
American literary histories invariably confine their discussions of Frank Norris, who died in 1902 at the age of thirty-two, to his novels of literary naturalism, mainly MCTEAGUE (1899) and THE OCTOPUS (1901). Influenced by Emile Zola, he was fascinated by the “brute” that lies not far below the surface of supposedly civilized human beings.
There is little of that influence to be seen in this selection of fourteen of Norris’ short stories. For the most part they are comic stories, often tall tales, in the “local color” tradition of Bret Harte. Like Harte, he found much of his material in late- nineteenth century California, which attracted a miscellaneous population of adventurers and fortune hunters. Although a well- educated and highly articulate man himself, Norris loved to capture in writing various ethnic and regional dialects, a number of which are on display in this selection of his short fiction.
Especially uproarious is “The Dual Personality of Slick Dick Nickerson,” in which the title character, a former Methodist preacher who has forgotten his calling because of a head injury, assists a group of unscrupulous adventurers in robbing a small detachment of Russian otter hunters of their valuable pelts in arctic Alaska. Ironic complications ensue when another head injury restores his earlier personality. Another gem is “The Passing of Cockeye Blacklock.” The environmentally insensitive Cockeye uses dynamite to catch fish, but after eluding all his neighbors’ efforts to catch and punish him, Cockeye meets his match in the form of a “fool dog” named Sloppy Weather.
These short stories reveal another side of Frank Norris well worth knowing.