The Second Chance, and Other Stories
Human beings live in a world of their own perceptions, a world which they can explain or share only partially, even if they wish to do so, with those whom they come in contact. One of the virtues of fiction is that it may immerse readers in realms of thought and emotion other than their own and thus expand the limited horizons of their own consciousness. Through such imaginative constructions readers become more keenly aware of the infinite shapes of psychological reality. The concentrated effects and limited focus of short fiction lend themselves particularly to the exploration of thought processes. This is certainly true of the best stories in Alan Sillitoe’s The Second Chance, and Other Stories.
The collection of eleven pieces of short fiction presents a variety of subjects from lower-, middle-, and upper-middle-class English life, ranging in time from the mid-nineteenth century to the present. Sillitoe’s style is terse, fast-moving, and hard-edged. Though it is interesting to compare the themes and effects of some of his stories with those of other authors, there is nothing derivative about his style or vision. The narrative development of the most effective and characteristic stories in this collection is based primarily on the movement of the protagonist’s mind.
“The Second Chance,” which is given pride of place and title in the collection, may be described as an Edward Albee-like psychodrama in the form of short fiction. A retired major who has lost his fighter-pilot son in World War II encounters in a pub an ex-convict who not only is the physical duplicate of his son but also has the same first name. The major’s wife has never gotten over the loss of her son and the two have never been able to acknowledge their loss outwardly, much less to console each other in their grief. In the hope of revitalizing his wife, who has withdrawn deep into herself since the death of her son, the major makes an implicit deal with the well-born ex-convict which calls for him to pretend to be the man he resembles.
The story, which is something of a tour de force, has many fine qualities. It keeps the reader’s attention through the development of a gradually increasing psychological momentum brought about by a series of revelations concerning the past experiences and relationships of the central characters. The juxtaposition of various angles of vision, predominantly those of the major and the ex-convict, whose relationship with his father turns out to be as unsuccessful as that which the major had had with his son, intensifies the impact of the final revelation. The crushing conclusion of the story says, in effect, that second chances are ultimately futile because the most appalling failures are the results of forces and feelings over which one ultimately has no control. The story is marred, however, by a weakness which the fascination of its style and theme cannot entirely obscure. Though its psychological momentum may be strong enough to create in most readers the willing suspension of disbelief necessary to accept the incredible biological and circumstantial chance that sets the story in motion, it is probably not strong enough to overcome the extent to which the gradually revealed character of the fighter-pilot son is shaped to fit into the ingenious psychological configuration of the plot.
Thematically and technically, “No Name in the Street” is a much simpler and stronger story, which might well, without the irony operative in the title story of the collection, have been called “The Second Chance.” The protagonist is Albert, a former collier—a down-and-outer who has led a lonely isolated life. His only companion is a mongrel dog which he has trained to retrieve stray golf balls on the town golf course at night as a means of supplementing his welfare check. Into this slough of a life comes an opportunity for a richer, more meaningful existence in the form of a marriage to an attractive, good-natured widow. As Albert prepares to move his meager possessions from his dingy quarters to a better section of town, his dog, frightened by the prospect of change, takes refuge behind the stove. The conflict that ensues mirrors a conflict that is taking place within the protagonist. Albert is frightened by a move that is designed to shake him out of the grubby lethargy of his past, perhaps demanding more of his potential as a human being than has ever been required of him. Without sentimentality, the quality of his character is emphasized through his loyalty to the mongrel which has been the only object of communication and affection in his life since the death of his mother, and the pain which attends growth or expansion of spirit is strikingly and poignantly reflected in his inner struggle.
“The Meeting” comments on the sometimes sad perversity of human nature. A male commercial traveler picks up a female commercial traveler in a bar and, over drinks, the two begin to speak of their former mates. It gradually becomes clear that they are discussing their own marriage and that it is only through the game they are playing that they are able to maintain a relationship which, though officially ended, is sustained by an attraction they cannot define or escape. Through a ritual of pretense which they carry on once a year, they find themselves able to communicate...
(The entire section is 2177 words.)