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 stories, how Morris has moved, has refined through the times, always more surely isolating essentials in his treatments. He is thus to cut through the confusion of a period as confusing to most writers as was the decade of the 1960’s, say, and wring out of it finally some parcel of good sense, feelings, and understandings which transcend mere time.
Geographically, Morris still seems most at home writing about the great, empty plains of this country. He seems to both hate and love a landscape reminiscent of a Georgia O’Keefe painting. He describes with loving care the deep-well-induced oases of small Nebraska or Missouri or Texas towns with their depots, their trees supporting tireswings, their picket fences, their houses, “... both crushed and supported by huge bushes of lilacs,” or with a “... run-around porch that is tilted like a ship’s deck.” His eyes note with precision how “In the fall the yard is so bright with leaves ... it’s painful to look at,” and he sees the “... cleared spot at the back hard as blacktop, where the trash and the leaves are burned.” That is a landscape Morris shares with Inge and Tarkington, and he knows it to perfection. But he does not stop there. The settings for these stories range from New York to California, from Austria to Spain. Morris loves his roots, but he is determined to thrust beyond regionalism.
In the story, “In Another Country,” for instance, he explores the idea of regionalism as a shortcoming to human understanding. An American tourist, romantically seduced into spending his honeymoon in Spain because of his having read Hemingway, has an encounter with a Spaniard. The result is a demonstration of the possible silliness, the narrowness of which both men, both nationalities, are capable through reliance on their prejudices. It is a witty, ascerbic story, saying in a new way much about the old confrontation between American eagerness and European ennui. Wherever he is writing about, Morris paints the scene deftly, economically, with just enough paint, just the exact pigments. In Texas, for instance, “... the daylight came slowly along the tracks. Nothing but space seemed to be out there.... The sky went up like a wall and the world seemed to end.” In California, “He didn’t like it. ... Nothing had its own...
(The entire section is 2579 words.)