“The Falls” moves back and forth between the third-person perspectives of two men—Morse, a self-doubting, apprehensive family man, and Aldo Cummings, a writer who feels sure the world will someday discover him and accord him the acclaim he feels he is due. Most of the story takes place in the minds of the men as they stroll along the Taganac River, until an event unfolds that snaps each of the men from his self-absorption.
The story opens with Morse walking home past the St. Jude Catholic school. The reader is quickly introduced to the state of Morse’s mental affairs as he deliberates over whether he should smile at the young girls playing in the St. Jude lawn and playground—and possibly be thought a pervert—or frown and be thought grouchy. Caught in this quandary, Morse tries to maintain an expression between friendliness and impassivity, while trying to always maintain what Morse sees as the most important characteristic a person can have: humility.
As Morse continues on toward his home, his internal speculations reveal more and more of his character. He lives in a small rental house with his wife, Ruth, and his son and daughter. As he worries about not being able to afford a piano for his son who is taking lessons (their piano having lately been repossessed), the reader senses that Morse is a man who feels he has failed on many levels. He has failed to gain financial and professional accomplishments, he has failed to be a successful breadwinner for his family, and he believes he has failed to be a good father and a good husband.
In contrast, Aldo Cummings, who snubs Morse when they pass each other, considers himself a starving artist. He spends each step of his walk constructing writerlike descriptions of the walk itself, even as his mind wanders further and further from the walk and into fantasies. For example, he tells himself that he will have to remember to bring a blank yellow writing pad with him to capture the whimsical literary creations spawned during his walk, and perhaps one day when he becomes a famous writer, his yellow pad will be a collector’s item, and thus many women would want to meet him.
As each man continues along his way, the reader sees how their lives are contrasted. In the eyes of society, Morse is at least somewhat successful: He has a job, is married, and has children; however, as he walks, his self-doubt and certainty of failure plague him. His son Robert is not as kind, smart, or talented as their young Pakistani neighbor, Ben; in fact, Robert reminds Morse of the bullies who assaulted him when he was a young man. What if his daughter Annie grows up to bring home horrible boys? How can he keep his wife happy, who once had an infatuation with their son Robert’s karate instructor?
Cummings, on the other hand, is a grown man who still lives with his mother and who has not achieved any visible measure of success, yet he is cocksure in his life of the mind. He envisions a time when he will become so successful as a writer that members of the literati will wear T-shirts with his face emblazoned on them, a time when he will be able to buy his mother a Lexus automobile, and a time when he can take trips to Paris with beautiful women. He sees Morse as a representative of corporate society, which Cummings, as an “artist,” must necessarily resist. Just like Cummings, Morse also is a success only in his mind, as...
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he daydreams about possibly being a prisoner of war who would refuse to talk or a winner of the lottery who gives all the money away.
Each man is thrust into reality when, on the banks of the Taganac, both realize that the two girls in a canoe they have each seen are in danger of being carried down river to the cataract known as Bryce Falls. Each is paralyzed for a moment by indecision: Morse is sure that in attempting to rescue the girls, he will make a mistake. Cummings stumbles about with no notion of what to do. As Morse thinks more and more about the situation, he realizes that there is nothing he, a weak swimmer, can do to help and that the girls are doomed; nevertheless, as the story ends, Morse kicks off his shoes and launches himself into the river.