Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

James T. Farrell has never been praised as a stylist; in fact, he is often described as an undistinguished writer of prose. His power comes, as it does with many American writers, from sheer force and accumulation, the command and sweep of factual material that does not need or solicit strenuous interpretation (though the car crash could be viewed as an allegory for the stock-market crash to come). Farrell overwhelms the reader with the visceral, with what he describes, somewhat mockingly, in “Saturday Night,” through the words of poet Wolcroft, as not just “realism. That’s old-fashioned. My poetry, now, it’s superrealist.” Farrell’s early naturalistic writing was in the mainstream and remained fashionable until that stream was thoroughly diverted and rechanneled after World War II.

Farrell, though he wrote many short stories, was not so much a master of the form as its earnest supplicant. The stories he wrote that were short enough became short stories instead of novels. Farrell had a novelist’s skill at synthesizing but also the novelist’s appetite for size, for the repetitive scene; the short story form does not profit from that sort of segmentation. Farrell’s stories are often novels in miniature, rather than short stories in full bloom—although “Saturday Night” is one of his most effective, rich with humor, energy, and life, and not simply scenes from a novel writ small.