Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 646
At the beginning of this story, set in New York during the early 1960’s, a time of beatnik literature and social consciousness among intellectuals, a writer, Taggart, meets Karla at a party given in honor of Taggart’s latest play. Its success is a gauge of Taggart’s ripening as a writer in his thirties. Blessed with inherited money, he has spent years developing his craft without the bind of an ordinary job. Although Taggart’s destiny of success is apparent, that of his casual but intimate acquaintance Karla is less clear. She has known much frustration in her few years since taking degrees in teaching and social work. These conventional paths to careers merely exposed her to the miseries of working amid bureaucratic agencies that defeated Karla’s intention to solve society’s many problems. She quit her teaching job and, early in the story, resigns her position as a social worker.
After their first night together, Karla asks Taggart’s advice. He has no solution for her problem, knowing already through other friends’ experiences the pitfalls of the “helping fields.” Characteristic of Taggart, however, he argues the sublime negativity of such occupations, urging Karla to temper her passionate need for instant and permanent effects with a dose of detached realism. Karla’s spirit will not be so appeased. Prostitution, she imagines, will be the answer, allowing her to minister to human needs and earn a living. Taggart is shocked at her idealism, if not her impulsive obliviousness, and when her work leads to a painful disillusionment, unspecified in the story, he feels bitterly righteous. She ignored his counseling, which she had sought during their first night together.
Although Karla’s dreams of “the right job” are dispelled, Taggart’s self-esteem as a writer is challenged, not by any personal failure to create literature but by Karla’s irreverence for the beatnik poetry writing and readings he values and through meeting Luis Fontana, a young Puerto Rican gang leader with literary aspirations. Luis is charged with possession of narcotics and receives a three-year sentence. In prison he is murdered, a crime the officials feebly attempt to rig as a suicide. After promises of further investigation, the Luis issue dies nearly as swiftly as did the boy himself. Luis, Taggart senses, was the real-life embodiment of the human energies—assertiveness, pride, intelligence—which Taggart imaginatively ascribes to his literary characters, who, precisely because they are imaginary, are privileged, enjoying immunity from the fate that befalls Luis. That Luis as a playwright lacked the skills to embody the experience of “life on the edge” in the violent city puts Taggart’s own unique gifts in an ironic light, as he writes successfully of things of which he is not truly part.
Nevertheless, Taggart does feel the reality of such harshness abrading the human soul. Karla feels it as well, and her intention has been to lessen its force. She accepts the leadership of a reading clinic organized by Taggart’s friend Everett, an aging political activist who has spent a lifetime adjusting his politics to reality. Taggart’s stance toward the harshness, while sharing in the actual clinic work and reuniting with Karla in the process, is through his art: “How mysterious it was that artistic form should absorb and recreate the spirit!” Despite the sadness, the grimness of things, the artist exists, and if not triumphant, then mysteriously persistent. The story’s final scene has Taggart suddenly remembering that he is scheduled to read at the Eiffel, a community center for Beat poets. Karla assures him that they will read to themselves if he does not show, but impelled by his difficult-to-explain connection to the brotherhood, Taggart heads for the center, Karla at his side, and “every ten steps or so he broke into a trot, and she would shrug and smile and run beside him.”