(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Writers whom R. V. Cassill especially admires are Gustave Flaubert, Henry James, D. H. Lawrence, and James Joyce. Their influence is not verifiable from the features of a given story so much as it is a cumulative force in Cassill’s writing. His work often manifests the rich hues and texture of Flaubert’s visual imagery, the complex internal conflicts of characters presented by Flaubert and James, the agonies of initiation from Joyce, and the energy and obsession of the characters of Lawrence. Considering his background in art, it is natural for Cassill to share the painterly qualities which all of these men, except the nearly blind Joyce, exhibited throughout their works. Cassill does not neglect color, shape, composition, and fine detail.

His stories, usually set in the Midwest, present rather common situations of youthful initiation, frustrated dreams, family conflict, and harbored delusion. The stories might be considered in terms of two broad types: those that examine the effects of youthful passions and those that reveal the destructiveness of self-delusion in adults. The most lyrical language and imagery in Cassill’s short fiction appears in the stories of youthful initiation. Good examples of this type are “The Biggest Band” and “In the Central Blue,” both of which present boyhood passions which are so strong that achieving them becomes the focal point of a boy’s life. Given such a frame of mind, whatever happens to the boys in these stories is bound to be disappointing; either they fail to get what they want, or they succeed and find that the thing desired is not so valuable after all. Perhaps Cassill’s most complex dramatic problems appear in the stories about adults such as “The Crime of Mary Lynn Yager” and “The Sunday Painter.” In both of these pieces the protagonists are unable to face inadequacies within themselves.

“The Biggest Band”

In most of the stories of the first type, locale is crucial, as is the case with “The Biggest Band.” This story, Cassill’s own favorite, grows out of the small-town environment and financial straits of Davisburg, Iowa, during the Depression. The reflective first-person narrator (called Buddy in childhood) speaks as an adult about his experiences with the Corn State Southern Band, and what he knows now strikes a telling contrast to what he felt as a boy.

The plan to assemble a state-wide band to travel to Chicago and play at the 1933 World’s Fair is promoted by Lothar Smith, whose nominal resemblance to Lothario (deceiver and seducer) carries over into his character. He resembles Meredith Wilson’s “Music Man”; however, his ambition and musical ability far exceed those of “Professor” Harold Hill. A more important difference is that, despite all the appearances of a massive confidence game, the trip does take place, the band does play at the world’s fair, and Smith goes broke realizing his dream. Finally, he appears to have been more a grand dreamer than a self-server. In this regard he and Buddy are alike.

The vital factor in the success of Smith’s plan is the imagination of the people, and it is a historical commonplace that hard times produce ardent dreamers. Part of the plan is to sell instruments to people who want to make the trip but do not have an instrument and, therefore, usually cannot play one. Buddy’s parents buy him a trombone that he must learn to play; he is later required to sell two “excursion tickets” in order to make the trip, and every appearance of a swindle is present. Buddy becomes so obsessed that he even suggests that his father should borrow money to buy the tickets. Buddy fails to sell the tickets, and his mother, who has known Smith since childhood, forces him to honor his initial promise. Buddy goes, the band plays at odd times and poorly, and the whole affair is a predictable failure. He does not discover what he expected, just as he fails to see the evasively nude Sally Rand; nevertheless, he learns more than he will admit, even in retrospect.

Buddy’s selfish obsession with going to Chicago, like Smith’s big plans, is presented negatively at first because both of them expect others to sacrifice for their personal fulfillment. In the end, however, Smith has given far more than he has taken, and Buddy feels “oddly free to do [his] best now that it didn’t seem to count for anything.” He narrates the story from adulthood and speaks laughingly of the band as “an altogether preposterous blunder committed against nature and a fine art,” but he also admits the clean beauty of a performance given at dawn before a stadium which contained only a few janitors. He describes how he would have told the story to Mrs. Packer, who shared his dream, if she had been alive when he returned, and the story ends with a burst of images embodying youthful zeal and true art:From their staffs over the national pavilions the ultramarine and lemon and scarlet pennants streamed out like dyes leaking out into an oceanic current. It was only the empty sky that watched us—but my God, my God, how the drums thundered, how we blew.

“In the Central...

(The entire section is 2102 words.)