Real Losses, Imaginary Gains
Not counting anthologies of his work, this volume is Wright Morris’ twenty-fifth book. Best known, perhaps, for such works as The Field of Vision, Love Among the Cannibals, and Fire Sermon, he has always worked diligently and well throughout a long career which has seen some of the juicier prizes carried off by lesser talents. Wright Morris continues in excellence. The man’s gift is amazing. It is not mere energy; it is an outrageously, excruciatingly powerful precision of vision bound to an equivalent, commensurate ability to express, to convey that which he sees, feels, so deeply needs to share with us. He comes closer to sharing the whole range of human emotion and situation than any other American writer today. He is restless. He experiments constantly in methods of creating mood, character, and theme. The stories always surprise, sometimes shock, always reveal something memorable. He is fearless. He takes on the knottiest, the most enigmatic problems of our time and treats them in such a way as to make us affirm our humanity, sometimes to go away chastened, at other times to be encouraged, and always to be more conscious of our better possibilities.
So, the writer is amazing; he truly gets better as he gets older. How suitable to his cranky spirit. How wonderfully perverse and refreshing that seems in our century of youth worship. Moreover, one of the traits which most endears Morris to his admirers is his craftsmanship-within-tenacity. He is a professional, a writers’ writer who is also the delight of the close reader. Never somehow having received the full recognition he deserves, he has continued observing life and reporting it in his inimitable way. He is honest; therefore he may at times seem merciless, but he relates the doings of humankind wide-eyed, sometimes in horror, sometimes in amusement, nearly always, though, in love, awe, or concern. He cares for this mystery, this pain and joy we call life. Every story in this collection aches with mingled pity and pride for humanity’s meager strengths. In the volume’s title story, Morris says of the gentle Aunt Winona, “She was at once serene, vulnerable, and unshakable. The appalling facts of this world existed to be forgiven. In her presence I was subject to fevers of faith, fits of stark belief.” The description might well suggest his own artistic stance and effect.
The stories range widely across time and geography, and they vary remarkably in tone and style. The dates at the end of each story show that most of them were written in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. The earliest one, “The Ram in the Thicket,” which first appeared in Harper’s Bazaar in 1948, is so poignantly universal in theme—the effect on his parents of the loss of a son to war—so timeless that it has probably been included here as a caustic reminder to contemporary readers that the pain of loss in war is not limited to Vietnam. The power of the story derives from its being determinedly about loss, whenever and wherever that loss occurs—not about topicality or region.
The most recent story—“The Cat’s Meow,” dated 1975—shows a tempered Morris, a man taking some temporary comfort in mellowness while at the same time not fully trusting it. The story is funny but tough, drawing its humor from inevitable reality, filled with gratitude for gifts of love and companionship and talent, yet at the same time sure of the knowledge of their inevitable loss. The narrator, Morgan, a writer, reveals the tentative quality of this plateau in his life as he describes his reliance on the settled regularity of things such as his cat’s need to be let out at night: “He had relied on that meow, as he did his wife’s breathing. If for any reason she checked that breathing, in order to listen to something, he was awake in an instant.” The gifts are thus savored more fully, more poignantly because of the consciousness of their very finiteness. It is interesting to note, between these two...
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