(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

An initial impression of Frank Tuohy’s short stories is likely to be that they are the observations of a sharp-eyed and widely traveled reporter who is filling in the reader on life in such diverse places as Japan, Poland, South America, London, rural England, New England, and New York. Tuohy does have a remarkable talent for direct observation, for bringing before the eyes of his reader the look and feel, the sound, and even the smell of actual places. The gestures of his characters, their speech, and their actions all ring true. Tuohy’s accuracy of observation and precision of language, although doubtless a reflection of his own interest in being literally truthful to the physical realities of the places about which he writes, are all part of his strategy for supporting and making real his underlying view of life.

Despite the variety of locales, of character types, and even of subjects, Tuohy’s short-story collections are bound together by an overriding vision of the world as a place of moral confusion. Here and there one finds in unlikely places remnants of an older, more civilized way of life, but generally one finds, also in unsuspected places, moral baseness of the sort that would have made a decent man of former times put his hand firmly on his sword. At their most poignant, Tuohy’s stories expose the raw nerves of conflicting cultures, the below-the-surface gnawing of social lesions bloodied by sudden rupture, the confinements within the self caused by differences of custom, of language, of status, of religion.

“The Admiral and the Nuns”

The best people in Tuohy’s stories are usually women. In the title story of his first collection, The Admiral and the Nuns, with Other Stories, an English woman, the daughter of an English admiral, is living in the interior of a South American country with her Polish husband. The place is a company town; the husband is employed as an engineer at a nearby factory; the neighbors, who are nationals of the country, have developed a deep dislike for the English woman and her husband and have, in effect, instituted a community-wide boycott. The grounds of dislike are these: The English woman is a dreadful housekeeper and cannot discipline her children; her husband drinks too much and pursues women. Tuohy’s point is made clear by his narrator, also English, who sees that the woman is charming and valiant, having been formed by her father (the admiral) and trained by the nuns in her convent school. She remains loyal to her husband and, throughout her ordeal (which concludes with their deciding to return to Poland), keeps her chin firmly up.

There is a dreariness, however, in this kind of life and more dreariness ahead, and the narrator’s admiration is tempered by what he regards as the woman’s limitations: “She was one of those people whom experience leaves untouched. But she was durable. After all, she was an Admiral’s daughter.” As for the nuns, the narrator “cannot decide whether they had given her the worst, or the best education in the world.”

“A Survivor in Salvador”

A more clearly admirable character is the young mulatto woman in “A Survivor in Salvador,” the last story in the first collection. The protagonist of this story is an exiled Polish prince who has arrived in San Salvador without money but with a packet of cocaine, which he is attempting to sell. Without friends, liable to deportation if caught with the drug, without food or shelter, he is befriended by a girl who herself has been a victim of various kinds of exploitation, including sexual abuse by the chief of police. The girl, Antonieta, befriends the prince, becomes his mistress, keeps him from starving, and when he is seriously ill from exposure, nurses him back to health. Christophe, the prince, in return, does what he can to show his love for Antonieta.

At thirty-two pages, “Survivor in Salvador” is easily the longest story in Tuohy’s first collection and perhaps his most virtuoso performance in the genre. Always in his three novels and frequently in his stories, he adopts the narrative viewpoints of perceptive European outsiders who are trapped between the shallowness of what they have abandoned and the poverty (in all senses) of what exile has wrought. In “Survivor,” Tuohy takes on as naturally as if he were born to it the central intelligence of a down-but-not-quite-out, dispossessed Pole, Prince Krzysztof Wahorski, who has fled Poland after “promises, his title, his bridge game” have all failed. He sees the heroine as his passport back to the noblesse oblige his title, if not his circumstances, ought to bestow. In Tuohy’s handling, Antonieta is neither brutalized nor romanticized as she throws the prince a lifeline. This story crosses Joseph Conrad with Guy de Maupassant but ends as pure Frank Tuohy.

“Fingers in the Door”

It frequently happens in Tuohy’s stories that the main character or characters are exiled Europeans living in a simpler or more integrated culture, in which even the poor are bound together by some mutually shared consciousness. The prince in San Salvador perceives that even the most despised are not as alone as he is. The prince is unusual in Tuohy’s fiction, however, for most of Tuohy’s exiles are unaware of their loneliness and alienation and are likely to regard those from simpler, more integrated cultures as inferiors to be exploited.

Exploitation of the weak or innocent and the snobbery that appears to be one of its causes are treated in the title story of his second volume of short stories, Fingers...

(The entire section is 2305 words.)