(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

While Jerome Weidman’s novels, I Can Get It for You Wholesale and What’s in It for Me?, are often neglected because of his brutally realistic treatment of unsavory Jewish characters, his short stories are frequently humorous, good-natured jabs at not only the Jewish community but also the world as a whole. His early stories, particularly those in The Horse That Could Whistle “Dixie,” are remarkably well constructed and display the work of a writer who has a clear conception of what he portrays. His later work, often marred by hasty writing and commercialism, retains the same sense of humor, but often lapses into the maudlin and into fits of bathos. Such flaws should be no surprise in the stories of a man who freely admits that his primary aim in writing is to make money.

Weidman draws extensively on his life as a child and young man trying to survive in the slums of New York, first on Fourth Street East and later in the Bronx. In fact, he claims that all of his short stories, even those with female protagonists, are more or less autobiographical. The people of Weidman’s stories are almost universally playing the game of life, and Weidman’s stories reflect the gamesmanship of their situations. The puzzles to be pieced together and the games to be played by Weidman’s characters are the puzzles and games that all people have played at one time or another and, as such, Weidman’s stories become something of a mirror of life. The mirror is faceted and reflects many pieces of a whole, however, and it is making those pieces reflect a steady image that is the challenge for the reader and for the characters alike.

“My Father Sits in the Dark”

It is the task, set for himself, of the youngster in “My Father Sits in the Dark” to “figure out” why his father, night after night, sits quietly alone in his darkened house. None of the pieces the young man sorts out seems to fit. The family is poor, but his father would not worry about money. He would not worry about the family’s health, either. None of the conventional answers fits. It is not until the young man confronts his father in the dark kitchen of the house that the pieces seem to fit. His father is an immigrant. His home in Austria did not have electricity, which made him familiar with the dark, so dark now provides for him a comfortable, nostalgic feeling. When the son asks the father why he sits in the dark, his father replies that it helps him think. When asked what he thinks about, he replies, “Nothing.” The implication is that the old man does not have to have a more rational reason to sit in the dark and that the son, with his rationalized, fabricated understanding of the situation, has come to an incomplete understanding, but an understanding nevertheless. The fact that Weidman is playing the conflicts of modern society against the idyllic Old World is evident, but he does not belabor the point; he only reveals the exultant son going back to bed after he finally accepts his father’s explanation for sitting in the dark. The outcome makes both happy, but there is no real resolution for the reader.

“Three-Two Pitch”

The same sort of puzzle appears in “Three-Two Pitch.” Harry Powell is a bright young graduate on a three-month internship with the office of the best public relations specialist in New York. Powell, from Cleveland, is considered a “hick,” but he takes his father’s advice to ingratiate himself...

(The entire section is 1428 words.)