Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 975
From a detached and rather cool third-person point of view, the reader observes Joseph “Dopey” Carberry shamble into the dining room of his Uncle Mike’s and Aunt Anna’s home and sit down to eat, only to begin yet another Saturday night of bickering and blathering with his relatives. Dopey and his two sisters have been living with their aunt and her brother since their father remarried. He is harangued by all assembled for his shiftlessness. His Aunt Anna directs the abuse: “We’ve helped him, fed him, clothed him, waited on him, coddled him, tried to point the right way out to him, but it’s just not in his bones.”
Dopey hardly listens; he silently laments his lack of “two bucks to lay on Red Pepper after Len had come around the corner with that hot tip,” earlier in the day. He eventually offers some excuses and evasions for his lack of energy, and his aunt retorts, “Yes, I know what you want. A banker’s job from twelve to one, with an hour for lunch.” Given the brevity of the scene, there is more satire displayed than bathos, and the bigotry and corruption of their milieu are deftly sketched.
In the second scene (there are ten in all, matching the straightforward chronology of the evening), Uncle Mike counsels young Joe (who, after quitting high school, has had a number of jobs—one of which he describes as “a slave factory for dopes”—and a period of vagabondism) to change his ways, and Dopey tells him, “I’d like to go back to sea or else be a bookie.” Through a ruse, Dopey then manages to borrow five dollars from his uncle.
Phil Garrity arrives in the fourth scene, looking like a “Big Shot,” as Dopey’s sister Kate tells him. “Why, Phil, you’re all togged out like Joe College.” Phil has just made a large amount of money “legit,” playing the stock market with money from his La Salle Street job, and has just purchased a new used car, a Lincoln. He is attracted to Kate but has not gone out with her for six months. He and Kate banter about dating, but Phil is not able to extract a commitment from her. He and Dopey go out for a night on the town and, through scenes five and six, the third-person point of view severs its attachment from Dopey and secures itself to Phil, who thenceforth assumes the position of protagonist. James T. Farrell manages this switch rather smoothly because it coincides with a change of location, from inside to outside.
Phil and Dopey drive to the corner of Sixty-third and Stony Island, where it is “bustling with Saturday-night activity, crowded with people, noisy with the traffic of automobiles and streetcars.” They join a crowd outside a drugstore, and Phil muses on his lack of success with women, his hopes for marriage to Kate, and her lack of interest in him, wishing all the while that he could be “wild, carefree, dashing, romantic, brave, a guy who didn’t care two hoots in hell for anything in the world.”
After picking up some speakeasy gin, as well as another friend, Marty, they “put their liquor in their pockets and left to see Jack Kennedy.” Kennedy’s apartment, where “most of the space is taken up by a wide in-a-door bed, which was unmade,” is full of the din of single young men recounting old times and former glories, their unsatisfying work, and lack of money. The dialogue is brisk and fresh throughout. Phil yearns for Kate and is sent out to buy more liquor.
After his return, Phil, Dopey, and Jack set off for the whorehouses of Twenty-second Street, and Red Murphy, another acquaintance of their big-city—yet excruciatingly tiny and parochial—world, staggers up to them as they are getting into Phil’s new car. As Phil drives badly down the Midway, the essential realism of Farrell’s style keeps this foreshadowing from being too heavy-handed when the remains of an earlier car wreck catch their eyes and they stop and survey the debris. “There’s a lot of blood in one person. This blood might mean just one poor sonofabitch killed,” Red comments.
The drunken men arrive at the Sour Apple on the near North Side, a tearoom and dance hall with a bohemian reputation. Phil hesitantly asks a young woman for a dance, and she “acted as if she had not heard him. He repeated it, humiliation eating inside of him.” Rejected, he retreats into further reveries of Kate and unintentionally insults a husky lad by telling him that he “can’t dance to the Notre Dame Victory March.” A brawl commences. When the club’s proprietor asks what started the fight, a denizen of the Sour Apple explains, “Four drunken Irishmen with liquor, four sober Irishmen with girls.”
Unable to secure pickups at the Sour Apple, the four friends depart and find the brothels on Twenty-second Street closed by an unexpected police raid. They do manage to pick up four older women who are leaving a nearby dance hall. With Phil at the wheel, they drive out to the country fields. “Large shadows raked the road, and the car whipped on.” After a few miles it smashes head-on into a Cadillac “going as swiftly as Phil’s Lincoln.”
Phil and one of the young women disentangle themselves from the wreckage, and Phil drags her, dazed and drunk, into the fields, where they are found later by the police with their britches down—an effective, if moralistic, yoking of sex and death. “You ought to swing for this, you sonofabitch,” the cop tells Phil. The dead bodies of Jack and Dopey are pulled out of the car. The story ends with Phil left delirious and uncomprehending.
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