(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Although Gina Berriault wrote short stories for three decades, she is still considered an undervalued writer who does not receive the critical or commercial attention she deserves. She is often described as a “writer’s writer,” that is, somebody with an enthusiastic following within the literary community but who is unknown outside of it. It is as a writer of short stories that she is best known and admired, and many of her stories have appeared in anthologies. These often brief stories deploy a detached economical prose style to empathically but unsentimentally portray a wide variety of characters in crisis situations. Unable to change their lives or to fully identify or express their feelings of loss, despair, and loneliness, Berriault’s characters often suffer in silence and isolation. Particularly important is the theme of unrealized expectations, which contrast with the hard realities in which her characters actually live.

Another virtue of Berriault’s work was that she could write convincingly from both male and female perspectives and from the vantage point of both youth and age. Her characters also come from a variety of social, ethnic, and economic backgrounds. Using California, especially the Bay Area, as the setting for many of her stories, her picture of modern California is a far cry from its image as a land of milk and honey. Many of her West Coast denizens lead bleak lives in diminished circumstances, having ended up in dead-end marriages or dead-end jobs.

Berriault’s brevity and her pessimistic vision of life have much in common with the minimalist writers of the 1980’s, such as Raymond Carver. Her unsentimental depiction of hardship has given her a reputation as a writer of gritty realism, but her work also has an intellectual and poetic side, which gives complexity and mystery to her otherwise often very short stories.

“The Bystander”

Although this is a very short story, Berriault is able to imply a larger social world, depicting the marginal side of American life and featuring people who are down on their luck, living out their years in inexpensive boarding houses and state institutions. Told from the perspective of eighteen-year-old Arty, the “bystander” of the title, the story reveals that Arty’s father, Lewis, has become an embittered and disappointed man, who has worked all his life and feels he has nothing to show for it. An irrational assault on his girlfriend has landed him in a mental ward, where Arty, whom he has raised since his wife’s death, has come to visit him. Much of the story is taken up by the disjointed conversation between father and son, so that it appears to be more of a vignette in which inconsequential details dominate—the two talk in a desultory way about where to eat, how to treat a cold, tool boxes, and travel directions. The underlying point, however, is that Lewis has become weak and dependent and that Arty has assumed a more parental role. When Arty departs, it dawns on him that the strong man he once saw as a good father and provider no longer exists and that he must stand by helplessly as his father utterly...

(The entire section is 1281 words.)