Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Characteristic of Frank O’Connor, the story combines humor and seriousness, a mixture that the author referred to as “crab apple jelly.” The narrative provokes laughter and sadness as it explores the moving plight of a child who is apparently following in his father’s drunken footsteps. The equivocal title points to the dual meaning: Is the reader to focus on the humorousness of the inadvertent drunkard, Larry, or on the irresponsibility of the more habitual drunkard, Mick, who pays for his drinking bouts by pawning everything in the house down to the kitchen clock? As the grown Larry ruefully remembers, “I could never get over the lonesomeness of the kitchen without a clock.”

The particular satisfaction of the story is not only in the reversal of expectations that it creates but also in the poetic justice that it delivers to the father. Victim and victimizer exchange roles: The potential victim Larry becomes victimizer of his father, who is passive witness and helpless victim to his son’s drunkenness. The potential victimizer Mick sees how he himself looks, acts, and speaks when he is drunk, as his son Larry proves to be a most unflattering mirror. The reader’s awareness that Mick has been the model for Larry’s drunken behavior underlies the hilariousness of Larry’s mood shifts from grandiosity to belligerence to melancholy self-pity, in which final state he proclaims his heroic martyrdom by singing “The Boys of Wexford.”

Although the story records a small triumph for Larry and his mother, it avoids sentimentality by reminding the reader of all the other times when they stood by helplessly, watching the drunkard’s progress of Mick Delaney. Larry recalls his father saying, after the incident, “Never again, never again, not if I lived to be a thousand!” In response to this statement, the older Larry comments, “To this day I don’t know whether he was forswearing me or the drink.” He thereby points out that, after this particular episode, his father repudiated neither him nor the drink. Thus, the story ends happily but not “happily ever after.”