(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

John Sayles’s fiction is in the realist tradition of Theodore Dreiser and James T. Farrell in its economic determinism, but as in the fiction of Stephen Crane, that determinism is tempered by occasional passages of sentimentality and romanticism. Though his blue-collar workers are often depicted as victims of their environment, they are resilient and resourceful ones. Like Crane, Sayles, especially in the Brian McNeil stories, focuses on the initiation of a young man on a quest for identity and manhood. In that quest Sayles’s characters encounter a variety of misfits, people on the margins of society. Sayles’s narratives are relatively straightforward, with the exception of “Tan,” which uses flashbacks` to juxtapose present and past, and “Schiffman’s Ape,” which uses flashbacks and provides parallels between scientific observations and the scientists’ lives.

These narratives, with the exception of the somewhat surreal “I-80 Nebraska, m.790-m.205,” which uses a cinematic sound montage of short CB messages to heighten tension, are recounted in an efficient, plain style without rhetorical flourishes. Sayles has a fetish for technical details, especially when the subject is something he has experienced, and the wealth of details engages the reader. Much of the fiction, especially the Brian McNeil stories, seems closely tied to Sayles’s own life. Partly because of the somewhat “autobiographical” nature of the content, Sayles is compassionate about his characters, even when they are seriously flawed.

“At the Anarchists’ Convention”

“At the Anarchists’ Convention” is an ironic title, for anarchy is antithetical to organization, especially as manifested in a meeting with name tags, place cards, and committees. Leo, the elderly narrator, recounts the events that culminate in a confrontation with hotel management, which has also booked a Rotary Club, full of “gin and boosterism,” into the Elizabethan Room, an ironic venue for anarchists. Leo, in love with Sophie and jealous of Brickman’s relationship with her some forty years ago, reminisces with old left-wing colleagues about past political battles and even manages a eulogy about Brickman, now deceased. When the hotel manager informs the aging leftists that they must vacate the room, they barricade the doors, link arms, and sing “We Shall Not Be Moved.” In his exhilaration, Leo holds Sophie’s hand and thinks that if Brinkman, his old rival, were here, “we’d show this bastard the Wrath of the People.”

“Schiffman’s Ape”

In “Schiffman’s Ape” Warden, an associate professor, and Lisa, his graduate assistant and wife, study Esau, a rare Schiffman ape in the ape’s natural habitat. In the course of the story Sayles neatly parallels Warden’s recorded observations of Esau’s sexual activity with the fading relationship between the two academics. The parallel is comically reinforced by a native legend, fabricated by Sayles, about the creator separating twin brothers into men and apes. Warden, whose name suggests his tendency to imprison others, is a patriarchal, macho, control-oriented person who...

(The entire section is 1297 words.)