When picking up a hefty treasury of a writer’s life work with the word “collected” in the title, readers usually expect the book to reflect some sort of overall plan— continuity, progression, or pattern. Yet in this collection of fifty-six stories written by Evan S. Connell over a period of almost as many years, no plan, either chronological or thematic, is apparent. Although a date is appended to each story, the stories are not arranged chronologically; in fact, one is not sure whether these are “first publication” dates or “final revision” dates. Moreover, if readers rearrange the stories by date, they will find no appreciable difference between early stories and late ones. For example, “The Beau Monde of Mrs. Bridge,” dated 1954, and “Mrs. Proctor Bemis,” dated 1994, although separated by forty years, seem almost identical in theme and character. Both Mrs. Bridge and Mrs. Bemis are conservative, placid women, like many people in Connell’s stories who (to use the words of Joseph Conrad that Mrs. Bridge discovers in her husband’s library) “go skimming over the years of existence to sink gently into a placid grave, ignorant of life to the last, without ever having been made to see all it may contain.”
Since the book itself lacks any organization principle, the following discussion provides one based on Connell’s penchant for returning fondly, or obsessively, to a few reappearing characters. Six of the stories focus solely on the two shallow sycophants Leon and Bébert, five deal with the solid but stolid Mr. Muhlbach, five center on the wandering, rootless writer William Koerner, and two are about a man named J. D., who is the free-spirited object of the envy of men like Mr. Muhlbach. The remainder of the stories are a miscellany of anecdotal and ironic fictions that focus on a wide assortment of characters.
The six Leon and Bébert stories, which originally appeared between 1959 and 1968, are similar in technique and structure. Leon and Bébert, two young, unmarried roommates who are mainly seen in white duck trousers and spend most of their time at the Po Po Club seeking shallow relationships with attractive young women, are introduced in a story in which Leon locks himself in his house. When Bébert, who seems only slightly more capable of dealing with reality than Leon, arrives to pick him up for a boat ride (in which Leon hopes to make a play for a pretty girl), the story develops mainly through dialogue as Leon, on the outside, and Bébert, on the inside, try to figure out how to get the door open. It is the most comical story in the group—in an Alphonse and Gaston sort of way—ending predictably with Leon finally getting out and then locking the car keys in the house so that they miss the boat ride after all.
Leon and Bébert’s shallowness is more serious in another story in the series, “The Suicide.” Here the two mindless men know that a female acquaintance is despondent and contemplating suicide, but they cannot quite overcome inertia or indifference to try to do anything about it. Leon says, “Here I am buttering a piece of bread when at this very moment Andrea might be lying in a pool of blood.” Bébert characteristically responds for both of them, “I have the best intentions, but I do not know quite how to proceed.”
The reader knows, however, that Andrea does not kill herself, for in a later story titled “Neil Dortu,” Leon is in bed with her when Bébert calls to tell him about their friend Neil shooting himself. Leon is somewhat disturbed about this, for Neil had come to his door the night before and begged to speak to him, but Leon, in bed with Andrea, pretended to be asleep. The story ends with the two men quarreling about the exact wording of the quotation from John Donne about “for whom the bell tolls” and dismissing Neil’s shooting as “just one of those things.”
In “The Undersigned, Leon & Bébert,” the two hilariously attempt to get a grasp on the world situation. Bébert says that he does not intend to remain a passive spectator any longer, but after both men become distracted by a woman they see through binoculars, they decide that since the problems of the world have been around for a long time, they do not have to do anything about them now. Whether Connell considered that he had taken the absurdities of Leon and Bébert as far as he could or whether he simply tired of their silly shallowness, he stopped writing about them after the story “Leon & Bébert Aloft,” in which the banal buddies are on an airplane engaged in one of their interminable, inconsequential conversations when the plane develops engine trouble; the story ends with it going down. Whether they die or survive, Leon and Bébert are not heard from again in The Collected Stories of Evan S. Connell.
The stories that focus on Mr. Muhlbach are more serious than the playful dialogues of Leon and Bébert and thus have more thematic resonance...
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