Harold Brodkey writes about people and places that most readers recognize and consider unexceptional. It is attention to detail, to the slow, agonizingly detailed unfolding of the commonplace that has distinguished Brodkey as a chronicler of what it is like to grow up—Jewish and adopted—in the Midwest. In the early stories, the cast of characters is identical: an adoptive mother and father, an older sister given to tormenting, and her younger brother, the autobiographical character, the first-person and occasionally third-person narrator.
The first three stories of First Love and Other Sorrows are really the beginning of what seems to be an embryonic Bildungsroman. They detail the childhood of the first-person narrator, a child who longs for love but cannot attract it. The narrator was adopted by his foster parents in part because he was very attractive, but in “The State of Grace,” the first story in the volume, he is thirteen years old, six feet tall, 125 pounds, and his ears stick out. He is displeased with the way he looks, extremely conscious of being the gangly teenager new to adolescence.
The first three stories in the first collection reveal the themes that his later work pursued and presage the focus of A Runaway Soul. A recurrent theme in Brodkey’s work is that true selflessness as such does not exist. In his stories, as presumably in his early life, all Brodkey’s characters have self-serving motives. This attitude may seem cynical, but in Brodkey’s work it emerges as realistic. Sometimes Brodkey confuses reciprocity with selfishness, as, for example, in “Innocence,” one of the later stories in Stories in an Almost Classical Mode, in which the first-person narrator is determined to give Orra Perkins her first orgasm, not so much to provide her with pleasure as to get a stronger hold on her and increase the intensity of his own sexual pleasure with her. It is difficult in this story to determine the line between selfishness and selflessness.
Brodkey’s stories are essentially concerned with providing descriptive details about places and emotions. His prose style has been shaped considerably by the style of The New Yorker, in which many of his stories appeared. The prose is unadorned, lean and direct, carefully calculated, and assiduously polished. Brodkey succeeds best when he writes about his midwestern childhood in University City, Missouri, in an uncomplicated way, in a style that reports commonplaces.
First Love and Other Sorrows
The title story of First Love and Other Sorrows takes place in the springtime, when its narrator is sixteen years old and confronts a budding sexuality that raises many questions within him. He lives with his adoptive mother and his twenty-two-year-old sister, who seems no more pleased with herself physically than the narrator is with himself. The adoptive father is dead.
The boy’s mother warns him against playing too hard and getting overheated. This admonition is a veiled warning that the heat of youthful sexuality can be as dangerous as the heat of April. The boy feels that such is the case, as a subplot that can be interpreted in a homosexual context makes clear. The sister dates Sonny Bruster, son of the town banker. The romance between them is not free of hazards. At one point, they stop seeing each other, but they reconcile and, before the story ends, are engaged. The boy feels like an intruder in the house of his mother, who makes it clear that she cooks only because he is there. The family situation is not hostile so much as vacant. The mother, a controlling woman, is vitally concerned with having her daughter marry someone prosperous. She, somewhat like Amanda Wingfield in Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie (1944), had experienced genteel living but has been reduced to living more humbly.
The story ends with the narrator’s sister engaged to Sonny Bruster. Her mother is composing letters at night to inform all her relatives of the engagement. The boy and his sister come into the kitchen, and the mother offers to heat up some soup for them. Her eyes fill with tears of emotion, and the three embrace and kiss. This story is typical of Brodkey’s early work and gives a strong indication of the course of his succeeding work. Nothing much happens in the story except that an adolescent boy makes tentative moves toward growing into manhood. He is uncertain and fearful of rejection. The story deals with situations and emotions but has little plot. It is filled with the carefully observed, well-presented sights, sounds, and textures that characterize Brodkey’s writing.
“Sentimental Education,” included in First Love and Other Sorrows, was first published in The New Yorker only one month after “First Love and Other Sorrows” appeared in the same magazine. It marks a tentative step toward “Innocence,” which it predates by sixteen years. Set in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where the nineteen-year-old protagonist, Elgin Smith, is an undergraduate at Harvard, the story’s only other character is Caroline Hedges, a freshman at Radcliffe College. Both are virgins. As the story progresses, they have a passionate affair.
The action takes place within an academic year, during which Elgin and Caroline are forced to...
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