Sally Beauman

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 569

[There] is a feeling of frustration about [the stories in "Last One Home Sleeps in the Yellow Bed"], as if the writer felt his chosen keyboard were too small, and he was constantly flexing his fingers, eager to modulate from major to minor, throw in a few arpeggios and contrapuntal cross references; in short, as if he wanted to write, not short stories at all, but a novel. Not that it's such a bad fault to have themes which are too big for your medium. Most short-story writers seem to have themes which are too small—nasty, tight, neat little themes which can be cleverly exploited for 4,000 words and then rounded off with a cheap "point" or "twist"—the Somerset Maugham-Saki syndrome, you might call it. At least, Leon Rooke doesn't suffer from that.

There are five short stories in this collection, and one short novel, "Brush Fire." Two of the stories work; three of them suffer from a sort of intellectual and stylistic indigestion. "When the Swimmers on the Beach Have All Gone Home," for instance, starts off well enough: an ex-lifeguard saves a girl who jumps off a bridge; it turns out she jumped, not to get away from him, but to find him; they go back to his apartment; they prevaricate; they end up in each other's arms…. The basic idea is good. Pinter, for instance, has written brilliant plays about relationships poisoned by gratefulness. But here too much else gets dragged in…. [Somehow] the originality of the idea erodes into cliché people, cliché postures. Mr. Rooke seems to sense the danger in this; and in the other two less successful stories, "The Ice House Gang" and "The Alamo Plaza," he tries to combat the weakness of incident and characterization with the person and tone of his narrator, gutsy, easy, almost jokey—a man sending up the romantic situations in which he finds himself.

But style is not something extra, a sauce that can disguise the flavor of the meat. In these stories, downbeat Holden Caulfield style modernity is poured over sad "B"-picture people and plots: the sauce is spicy, but it doesn't disguise the tired taste underneath.

Significantly, the two most effective stories are the simplest ones, and the ones that employ a different narrative technique. The title story is in the third person, and is about a man who commits spiritual suicide without realizing it; the other story "The Daughters of the Vieux Carré," is narrated by a woman, and takes the form of an address to the man she met the evening before in New Orleans, and with whom she has just spent the night.

These two stories perfectly distill a mood: the one of despair that has lasted many years; the other of hope that has lasted an evening. "Daughters of the Vieux Carré" in particular, is totally accomplished and poised…. [The] people, and the style all mesh. And Mr. Rooke's strange, articulated, cinematic prose, which leaves out nothing, not the gesture of a hand, a noise from the street, comes into its own. He is not straining his medium; he modulates it to perfection. It will be interesting, when it comes out, to see how he handles his first novel. (pp. 42-3)

Sally Beauman, "A Past Like Fragments of a Movie," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1969 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 2, 1969, pp. 42-3.

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