Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 220
The chief stylistic device at work is Connell’s use, as the major structural pattern, of a variation on the descent into Hell common in epic literature. The journey takes place without the formal guide characteristic of some of the epic models, but Muhlbach’s frequent quotations from the Confessions serve to cast Saint Augustine in that role. It is appropriate, therefore, in the light of his guide’s long service in Africa, that Muhlbach goes to Club Sahara. It also makes sense that Rouge’s name evokes the fires of Hell, that the taxi driver taking him away from Greenwich Village looks like an angelic messenger, and that the bird that brings the message of truth to Muhlbach is a pigeon or dove. Connell’s details allow for a fairly thorough allegorical reading.
Nevertheless, as the limited third-person narrator makes clear, it is Muhlbach who sees the trip into New York City in these terms. He is the one, not Connell or the narrator, making these associations, for the journey occurs as much in his consciousness as in the actual city. As a result, the conclusions that Muhlbach reaches about himself at the end of the story seem to develop out of his personality and the situation rather than being imposed on him by the narrator or the author.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1955
Short fiction is a difficult medium, perhaps the most demanding of the literary art forms. Within a relatively brief space, the successful short-story writer must make believers of us. Through the spell cast by compelling psychological delineation, the creation of an evocative atmosphere or sense of place, or a thematically resonant pattern of events, dialogue, and descriptive detail, through all or some combination of these elements, the writer of a short story must bring readers into the world as he sees it and stir their hearts and minds in such a way as to make them feel that they have observed or been made a part of something that is or could be true. There is no disguising a weak short story; neither cleverness of craftsmanship nor a way with words can validate a story with a facile, artificial heart.
All of the short stories in Evan S. Connell’s collection Saint Augustine’s Pigeon are well written and well structured; and most of them deal significantly and compellingly with some aspect of the human situation. Five long stories comprise the core of the collection. Although they are not equal in merit, they are among the most interesting because, when considered together, they reflect a good deal of the range of Connell’s vision as well as his artistic strengths and limitations.
Two of the longer stories focus on a highly romantic protagonist who has turned his back on the conventional patterns of society while three treat a middle-aged insurance expert who has outwardly conformed to these conventions but, at the same time, kept his mind and spirit free.
The character of J. D., the protagonist of “The Walls of Avila” and “The Palace of the Moorish Kings,” is seen through the point of view of one of his boyhood friends. All of the friends with whom J. D. has corresponded over the years have, like him, dreamed of escaping in one way or another from the humdrum patterns of small-town life. Only J. D., however, has had the courage, enterprise, and initiative to live out the dreams of his youth. He has wandered the face of the earth, living by his wits and savoring the variety and fascination of life, while his friends have hardened into middle age and, in various ways, followed conventional tracks of experience. In “The Walls of Avila,” J. D. has returned for a brief visit after ten years of roaming over, and sojourning in, exotic places to meet mingled feelings of fascination, envy, disapproval, and resentment. J. D. discovers that it is impossible to make his friends aware of how the perspective of distance may remove the film of familiarity that hides natural beauty and leads to a recognition of the essential poignance of life. Their minds remain as closed and impenetrable as Avila, an ancient town in Spain whose walls become a symbol of what is absolute, unchanging, and indestructible on its own terms.
“The Palace of the Moorish Kings” focuses on the reaction of J. D.’s friends to his decision to give up his glamorous, free-spirited life and settle down to a career and marriage. Precisely what J. D. is returning to is made evident in the banal conversation which his friends carry on with him when he calls long distance to announce his plans. The final act of humiliation for J. D. lies in the necessity of his turning for help in finding a job to the most successful and the most prosaic of all his friends, who cannot resist the opportunity to chastise him, with grasshopper-and-ant triteness, for having the audacity to live out a boyhood dream. Ironically enough, however, the dominant feeling of his friends is not that of smug self-righteous gratification but of a sense of loss. The end of J. D.’s unconventional career signals the end of their youth.
The three long stories “Arcturus,” “Otto and the Magi,” and the titular “Saint Augustine’s Pigeon” concern themselves with the mind and experiences of a protagonist who is outwardly the opposite of J. D. This set of stories contains the most powerful and ambitious efforts in the collection, although they are not all equally successful. The masterpiece of the set, and indeed of the collection, is “Arcturus,” which brilliantly celebrates the virtues of intelligence and strength of character. This powerful story presents us with a variety of vividly drawn characters: a small boy, crafty in his encroachments upon the conventions and good will of the adult world; two hunters who bring the chill of death briefly to the drawing room; an artificially exotic ballerina who lacks soul; a beautiful dying wife and mother who reaches out desperately in an attempt to recapture something glamorous from her past; and a minor diplomat whose charm and sophistication mask a superficial heart and spirit. At the center of all these characters is Muhlbach, the rock-solid husband and father who is suffering his wife’s physical decline, understanding without acquiescing servilely or bitterly to her desire to recall momentarily another love, and gradually asserting firmly and unequivocally his superiority as a man to his wife’s former lover. At the conclusion of the story, the reader views Muhlbach under the stars through the eyes of his charming obstreperous son. He is the man who can assure his son that the stars will not fall. He is also, in symbolic terms, Arcturus, the warder of the bear.
“Otto and the Magi” is thematically more ambitious but less successful than “Arcturus.” The story is more interesting for what it attempts to do than for what it actually accomplishes. It sets out to explore the irrationality of contemporary civilization. The rational or wise man, Muhlbach, still grieving the loss of his wife, has built a bomb shelter in his backyard to protect the future of his children; and, during the course of a social evening, shows it off to two other wise contemporary men, a doctor and a chemist. The essential irrationality of the bomb-shelter cast of mind is exposed through an irrational action of Muhlbach’s young son, Otto, which nearly costs his father his life. The force of the story, as the title suggests, is meant to come through the ironic juxtaposition of Christian story with a contemporary situation. There are, however, two flaws in the story—one minor and one major. Although Muhlbach’s sardonic reactions to the ludicrously inane illustrations which accompany the government specifications for the bomb shelter are amusing and pertinent to the story’s theme, this section of the story is so extended that it interferes with the development of the action. The major flaw lies in the puzzling climactic action of Otto, which is obviously designed to illuminate the central point of the story. Here in a story firmly grounded in realism, psychological plausibility is sacrificed on the altar of symbolic action. Otto’s irrational action is meant to reflect a child’s intuitive rejection of the quasi-rational bomb-shelter mentality of the contemporary world and to allude obliquely and ironically to the sublime unreasoning wisdom associated with Christian story. Uncharacteristically, however, Connell has stretched our willing suspension of belief to the breaking point for the sake of his theme. It is interesting to compare the quiet, understated, psychologically compelling symbolic ending of “Arcturus” with the high-pitched tone of uncertainty on which “Otto and the Magi” concludes.
“Saint Augustine’s Pigeon” is less successful than “Arcturus” but more impressive than “Otto and the Magi.” The story deals with the manner in which even the most rational of men, such as Muhlbach the widower, may become the ludicrous victim of the desires of the flesh. The virtues of the story lie in the believability of Muhlbach’s thought processes and the blend of the predominantly comic tone with an underlying current of pathos. The weakness of the story is somewhat similar to that of “Otto and the Magi” although not as pronounced. The concluding symbolic action, in which Muhlbach after a night of indignities plays statue for a pigeon, is thematically perfect; but the accumulation of coincidence at the end of the story almost suggests the influence of O. Henry. It is not the chance action of the pigeon that one questions but the fact that it should take place precisely at the point when characters earlier encountered in the story—one of whom has played Columbine to Muhlbach’s Harlequin—reappear at a place they have no good reason to be. At this point in this basically realistic story, the brush strokes are too heavy. Nevertheless, the story is redeemed by its comic exuberance. In various ways, harem dancers, a dwarf, a pickpocket, a Bohemian teenager, an overripe cocktail waitress, and a hamster contribute to the decline of Muhlbach from rational man to clown, and to the resonance of the insight he receives into himself and his lot in life.
Of the shorter pieces in the collection, five are particularly noteworthy. Although the situation in “At the Crossroads” is somewhat implausible, it is justified by the evocative symbolic atmosphere of the desert setting; and the story ends on firm psychological ground. Through the juxtaposition of a youthful tramp, whose mind is turned eagerly toward the future, and a dying, half-demented old woman, whose mind travels into the past for sustenance, the reader is presented with a powerful commentary on the nature of life.
“The Fisherman from Chihuahua” is concerned with the impact of a remote and mysterious passion on a prosaic mind. Its success is due to a masterful blend of diverse effects: the psychological action of the story involves several realistically drawn characters and takes place in a dilapidated restaurant which is surrounded by a mysterious symbolic fog.
“The Yellow Raft” is a tour de force in which the protagonist, an unnamed navy war pilot in World War II, is scarcely mentioned. Although the main point of the story lies in the downed pilot’s struggle to survive the onslaught of the ocean, the reader is not even made aware of the point at which the struggle is lost. Such a narrational strategy intensifies our awareness of the plight of humanity in an alien, chance-ridden universe. “The Yellow Raft” might well be described as a bleaker, more obliquely presented version of Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat.” Everything is implicit; there are no philosophical passages extrapolated from the mind of the protagonist; and he is seen briefly and then only from outside. There is also within the brief compass of this story no human force to compensate for the indifference of nature to the plight of man.
“The Caribbean Provedor” and “The Scriptwriter” are hard-edged, skillfully crafted stories which follow the thought processes and experiences of Koerner, a cosmopolitan, somewhat cynical observer of human nature. In the first of these stories, Koerner, an avid chess player, finds himself, as a result of a misunderstanding, caught in a psychological chess game that threatens his life. The second story, which is thematically more provocative, explores the manner in which the death of a brilliant scriptwriter is mocked and robbed of feeling by the qualities of mind which had brought him success.
Three of the remaining four pieces in the collection are competent but undistinguished. “The Marine” makes its point about the dehumanizing effect of war flatly. It lacks the richness of irony and the effectiveness of narrational angle that account for the success of “The Yellow Raft.” “The Short Happy Life of Henrietta,” “The Corset,” and “Promotion” are all stories which rely on too easy an irony for their effects. The final piece, “A Brief Essay on the Subject of Celebrity,” is interesting, but it does not contribute significantly to the collection.