(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

“The White Rooster” is the story with which Ghost and Flesh: Stories and Tales, William Goyen’s first collection, opens. The war between the sexes is being fought out in the hen yard. The story opens and centers upon an unattractive woman who dominates her absent husband, Walter. In his brief appearances, he says little and does not do much, except to obey his domineering wife. According to the code of the Southwest, a woman needs to be mastered in order to be feminine. Marcy Samuels is homicidal. What is ostensibly driving her “insane” is the omnipresence of her scrawny, “white-faced” father-in-law, who scuttles through her house in his wheelchair, hawking and wheezing through his thin white neck. The second thing that aggravates her to dementia is the presence in her backyard of an old, sick white rooster. The scrawny cock is identified with the annoying old man by his movements, his noise, his appearance, and the rage he arouses in her. She determines to kill it while Mr. Samuels, coughing in his wheelchair behind her, recognizes that it is his neck that she would like to be wringing.

Marcy has had many arguments with Walter about putting his father out of the house. The old man has overheard these and is aware of her hatred for him. Marcy bullies Walter into constructing a trap which functions like a guillotine. She sits by the window, the cord pulled taut in her hand, waiting for the rooster to approach so that she can release the rope and decapitate it. At the murdering instant when the white rooster approaches and is about to “get it” in the neck, the old man slits his enemy’s throat from behind with a knife. After murdering her, he devastates the house, smashing everything he can reach from his wheelchair: ripping off the wallpaper, slashing up the pillows, tearing and destroying in impotent fury. Walter finds him dead in this chaos.

The violence initiated by Marcy in her hatred of her father-in-law and deflected to the white rooster ricochets back to the old man, is vented by him against her who began it, and then becomes a storm of passion which demolishes the entire house. Goyen shows that hatred vented against one order of being, the bird, infects the human order, and then grows into a storm which destroys the object world, the house. In parentheses beside the title, it is indicated that this is Walter’s story. In narrative terms, the perspective would have to be his, since he is the only survivor. In emotional terms this is also his story, because he, alone, is culpable. As “master” of this house, now savaged, he should have assumed the masculine role; then there could have been order and peace in his house instead of this explosion of destructive force unleashed by hate.

“A Shape of Light”

The last story in this collection is called “A Shape of Light.” Very different in tone, it is similar rhetorically. The sentences are made of short, repetitive, incantatory phrases. Instead of a linear plot, there are circlings, stalkings, dancings, weavings around an action which the language barely lets the reader glimpse. The author describes the setting of this story in words that might equally apply to his syntax. He says, “you had...

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