The Collected Stories of Evan S. Connell

by Evan S. Connell Jr.

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2019

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 and power. “Arcturus,” the first Muhlbach story in the collection and arguably one of the strongest, opens the book by introducing Muhlbach as the husband of a dying woman who has invited an old lover to dinner in what might be a final test as to whether she married the right man. Muhlbach seems destined to play the role of constant but uninteresting second fiddle; neither artistic nor athletic, he cannot compete with the clever and witty first lover, nor can he compete with the masculine visitors who have been hunting and bring ducks to the house for the family larder. His one claim to meaningful purpose is related to the title of the story: He tells his son Otto about the star Arcturus, the warden of the Great Bear constellation. Muhlbach realizes that he is destined to play that same role of bland constancy.

In “The Mountains of Guatemala,” after his wife’s death, Muhlbach is at a Christmas party. In his pocket is a travel brochure focusing on Guatemala, which Muhlbach thinks is the handsomest of the central American nations. Once again he seems to be overshadowed by his wife’s old lover, who is also at the party; the story ends with Muhlbach thinking a little wildly that he must go to Guatemala soon, for the year is almost over. Like Leon and Bébert, however, Muhlbach does not have either the courage or the conviction to take such a decisive step.

In “St Augustine’s Pigeon,” Muhlbach has an encounter with a young beatnik woman and goes to a topless bar; these experiences arouse in him a lust that he cannot satisfy. “I don’t have the guts to approach a kootch dancer. I do not have the brains or sex to interest a Bohemian girl,” he thinks at the end of his profitless night on the town. “I’m a fake, a pompous ass, a stuffy bourgeois pedant.” Although perhaps no one is as hard on Muhlbach as he himself is, the reader senses that he will always be what he is, lacking either imagination or moral adventure to break out of the restrictions he has set for himself.

In contrast to Muhlbach, who is so solid that he seems rooted to one place, Connell focuses on two characters who always seem on the move—William Koerner and J. D. The former, a writer, is introduced in “A Cottage near Twin Falls,” a relatively slight satire on the cliché of the writer who goes, against his better judgment, to a cocktail party and falls prey to inevitable boors who always have a story that they would write if they had time but that they are glad to share with a writer.

Koerner assumes no personality in this story except the stereotype of the jaundiced writer, but Connell pushes the characterization to more extremes in later stories in which Koerner appears. In “The Caribbean Provedor,” Koerner, who now seems to do nothing but travel, has a conversation with a man who provides supplies for the ship on which he is traveling and who feels sorry for Koerner because nothing seems to make any difference to him. This indifference, however, is tested in the story “The Scriptwriter,” the best of the Koerner stories, in which the writer, on his way to Mexico, calls an old friend in Hollywood only to find out that he has died. Much to Koerner’s disgust, the dead man’s wife melodramatizes her account of her husband’s death, making the whole thing sound like a cheap film script. The story ends when Connell, continuing on his trip to Mexico, points his finger out the window and makes the sound of a gun shooting to get rid of his disgust, noting laconically that the moon, however, does not fall into the sea.

The most obvious contrast to Muhlbach is the character known only as J. D., who is introduced in the story “The Walls of Ávila.” J. D. has done in actuality what Muhlbach can do only in his ineffective fantasies: He has turned away from conventional social expectations and has spent his adult life abroad, free and unentangled, making himself the envy of all the friends who stayed at home and became insurance agents and bank tellers. In “The Palace of the Moorish Kings,” however, J. D. has decided to return to America and settle down to marriage and a steady job, only to face the humiliation of having to depend on the goodwill of the very prosaic men who have envied him all these years. The story ends with the focus on the formerly envious friends, who lament J. D.’s decision, for they trusted him to keep their youth intact.

Many of the other stories in this collection are interesting in their own right, but they are uneven in power and artistry. Some are merely ironic and anecdotal, mere vignettes or concept-controlled tales. For example, an early story, “I Came from Yonder Mountain,” tells the fablelike story of an uneducated young woman who makes a long journey into town with her baby in her arms; the reader finds out only at the end of the story that the baby has been dead all the time. One of Connell’s later stories, “Lion,” is a long single paragraph about a woman who watches a mountain lion drive a cow past her house into the hills to kill it. It is an obvious concept story in which the woman identifies with the cow and fears that she is failing herself somehow by abandoning it; the story ends with her hearing a distant bellow and a scream.

Some of the stories are merely inconsequential. In “The Succubus,” an old man tells a young man a story about a woman he once met on shipboard and finally, after much effort, seduced into going with him; at the crucial moment, however, he gets seasick and loses his one opportunity for sexual conquest. He ends with the quasi-wise conclusion that “there are situations altogether understandable which are, just the same unforgivable.” “The Short Happy Life of Henrietta” is little more than an extended sick joke about a woman who is picked up by two Arabs, who joke about cutting off her head and putting her in the forest in a wicker basket; in the punch line they actually do so.

As of 1995, Evan S. Connell has written sixteen books in his long and quite competent career. Having reached his seventies, he seems just as capable as he ever was. Yet as sound and solid as his stories are, Connell’s characters often lack the magic to come alive and engage the reader in the concise and demanding genre of the short story.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCII, October 1, 1995, p. 251.

Library Journal. CXX, October 1, 1995, p. 122.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLII, August 21, 1995, p. 47.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVI, January 14, 1996, p. 1.

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