Themes and Meanings
“The Smoker” first appeared in The New Yorker and then in David Schickler’s first book, Kissing in Manhattan (2001). In this story, the principal theme is loneliness in the big city. It is not good for a person to be alone, and the best match may be one based on intellectual attraction. However, being single, intelligent, and alone in New York City poses a problem to be solved. One solution appears to be suggested by the name of Nicole Bonner’s apartment house, The Preemption. A preemption is the right to acquire something before anyone else. Hence, the Bonners propose to arrange a marriage between Kerchek and Nicole and thereby directly acquire a well-credentialed husband for their daughter without running the “risks” of the “open market” in Princeton, which Nicole will attend, or the city of New York. Kerchek, although from a hardscrabble Pennsylvania town, is a Harvard Ph.D., intelligent, employed, good-looking, and physically fit. The Bonners, Samson and Paulette, appear to have acquired money in some way but little or no culture, only the veneer of sipped brandy and a huge heirloom collection of unread but leather-bound books that cover a wall of the main room in the Bonner apartment. They have one daughter, Nicole, who is both bright and beautiful, not to mention remarkably self-assured. The Bonners test Kerchek by various means, including repeated punches to the shoulder and verbal assaults, to see whether he measures up.
Schickler cleverly—and ironically—exploits the comic possibilities of the single man teaching in an all-girls parochial school. Furthermore he exaggerates the games, purposes, and devices of the usual “courtship audition dinner,” thereby creating a comic examination of the serious social and cultural issue of finding a suitable mate. The meanings of the story may be seen most clearly revealed toward the end of the evening and the end of the story, where Schickler implicitly contrasts Nicole’s (and her parents’) practical approach to the serious matter of finding a suitable mate in the wilderness of Manhattan with all the romantic notions of falling in love in New York City. For one thing, the Bonners assure Kerchek that theirs is just such an arranged marriage. For another, all three of them see in Kerchek a lonely but very eligible man, well-educated and good at his profession but one who is, as Nicole says directly, “just killing time.”