Evan S. Connell, Jr., is a careful and precise writer, whose fictions capture and reveal their meanings through detail, observation, and implication. Settings and descriptions of how his characters dress and appear offer subtle but unmistakable clues to the inner lives of the individuals in Connell’s stories. Quite often these individuals appear to be conventional, even boring characters; Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, for example, seem at first to be almost numbingly normal. A closer and more sympathetic examination, however, shows that even the mask of midwestern, middle American normality often covers passion, doubts, and dreams.
Connell is a master of the quotidian, the everyday or ordinary. Sometimes he uses the everyday settings in a satirical fashion, exposing the gap between modern culture’s stated beliefs and its actions. This satire, however, is generally restrained, even muted, rather than being broad or forced. More open and pointed attacks are found not in Connell’s prose fictions but in his long poems, especially Points for a Compass Rose (1973), which is overtly political.
Connell is most concerned with the people in his stories and in the baffling, mysterious fashions in which they fall in and out of love, rejoice over happy events, cry over sad ones, and, in essence, live their everyday but compellingly wonderful lives. Through an extensive but not obtrusive vocabulary and a lean, economical prose style, Connell reveals these everyday people and their lives as matters worth careful observation and consideration.
Each story by Connell creates, in the space of only a few pages, a world that is uniquely its own. This world may be, and often is, connected with the everyday world of modern American life, but inevitably it also carries with it the hint of other ways, other views, and these provide insight into more varied experiences. Often these alternate lifestyles are introduced by a character who disturbs the tranquil flow of the ordinary and then fades from the story. There is something more possible than ordinary life, these characters suggest, and this suggestion and the reactions of other figures in the story to it are central to Connell’s fictions.
“The Fisherman from Chihuahua”
Sometimes this sense of otherness is presented obliquely, as in “The Fisherman from Chihuahua.” In this story, the ordinary restaurant known as Pendleton’s is visited by a tall, mysterious Mexican who suddenly, and for no explicable reason, begins to sing a piercing, meaningless dirge. Although at first annoyed, the owner and his regular patrons begin to look forward to the man’s visits and his unearthly singing, which reveal a glimpse of something that they cannot name. When the tall Mexican abruptly ceases his visits, those who remain are left with a sense of loss.
“The Walls of Avila”
This division between necessary but boring life and romantic adventures is explored more explicitly in a pair of stories featuring the character known only by his initials, J. D. In “The Walls of Avila,” J. D. returns to his hometown after years of wandering throughout Europe, Africa, and Asia. J. D. spins eloquent and elaborate tales of his adventures, and his stories are packed with such vivid detail that they make distant places, such as the ancient village of Avila, in Spain, seem as real as New York or as tangible as a suburban house. J. D.’s tales leave his childhood friends depressed and angry because they are now older, more “mature,” and established but feel they have missed the adventures of life. J. D. has given them a glimpse of a romantic life that is denied to them, perhaps because of their own failures or fears.
“The Palace of the Moorish Kings”
These themes are explored in even greater detail in “The Palace of the Moorish Kings.” Again, J. D. spins his wonderful yarns, and apparently the man has been everywhere: the Black Pagoda in Konorak, the islands of Micronesia, the painted caves of Altamira. Now, he wishes to return home, get married, and find a job. His friends are partly relieved by this decision, since it affirms that their choices and lives have been, after all, correct. At the same time, however, they sense that when J. D. settles down it will mark the end to their own dreams, even as lived through him. One of them attempts to explain their mixed feelings to J. D.: “It’s simply that you have lived as the rest of us dreamed of living, which is not easy for us to accept.”
One of Connell’s most ambitious and fully realized flights in short fiction has been his series of stories about the Muhlbach family, who live across the river from Manhattan in a moderately exclusive New Jersey suburb. Like the Bridges, who appeared in short stories before receiving more extended treatment in novels, the Muhlbachs have appeared in both stories and novels, and one of the short stories, “The Mountains of Guatemala,” later reappeared, revised, as the opening chapter of the novel Double Honeymoon (1976).
By returning to the same characters in successive stories, Connell is able to develop them more fully and completely. This gradual development is especially important for Karl Muhlbach, since his inner life and especially his emotional crises following the death of his wife are the central themes of all these stories. That death is signaled in typically indirect Connell fashion in the first of the Muhlbach stories, “Arcturus.” This is a key story in the body of Connell’s work for several reasons: First, it introduces the Muhlbach family; second, “Arcturus” is a high point in Connell’s literary technique of presenting deeply emotional, disturbing events through oblique reference. In many ways, “Arcturus” is powerful precisely because of what is not said, what is left unexpressed. Finally, the story is one of the best pieces of American short fiction written during the second half of the twentieth century.
The plot of “Arcturus” is deceptively simple. Karl Muhlbach and his wife, Joyce, are expecting a guest, Sandy Kirk. Sandy is an old boyfriend of Joyce, and the reader learns through hints that he has been asked for a final visit because Joyce is dying. As the Muhlbachs wait, their children, Otto and Donna, drowse by the fireplace. Otto is aware that something is going to happen, that some tension pervades the room, but he cannot quite recognize it. Still, it troubles him throughout the evening, even after he is put to bed; later, when Sandy has left, Karl must reassure his son that everything will be well, but even as he says the words, he doubts them.
“Arcturus” is a story...
(The entire section is 2755 words.)