What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

August 24, 2015 Issue

F. Scott Fitzgerald, in a note at the end of his unfinished The Last Tycoon (1941), observed, “ACTION IS CHARACTER.” I thought of this adage as I read Alice McDermott’s wonderful "These Short, Dark Days," in this week’s issue. It’s a portrait of a sixty-four-year-old nun, Sister St. Savior, a Little Sister of the Sick Poor, who, walking back to the convent one dark February evening, happens on an emergency – an apartment fire, a man asphyxiated, his young wife in despair. McDermott uses action to reveal Sister St. Savior’s remarkable character. Sister boldly enters the building and takes charge of the young woman’s care. The story is like a nun’s version of a police procedural. Sister learns from a policeman that the asphyxiated husband committed suicide, a fact that the reader already knows because McDermott shows us his preparations in the opening part of the story. Her response to this information is interesting:

Sister accepted the information with only a discreet nod. When she looked up again—her eyes behind her glasses were small and brown and caught the light the way only a hard surface would, marble or black tin, nothing watery—the truth of the suicide was both acknowledged and put away. She had entered the homes of strangers and seen the bottles in the bin, the poor contents of a cupboard, the bruise in a hidden place, seen as well, once, a pale, thumb-size infant in a basin filled with blood and had bowed her head and nodded in just the same way.

Hard eyes, soft heart – a paradoxical combination that complicates Sister’s character. She’s determined to circumvent church rules that forbid the burial of a suicide in a church cemetery. She says to the young widow:

“Your man fell asleep,” Sister St. Savior whispered now. “The flame went out. It was a wet and unfortunate day.” She paused to make sure the girl had heard. “He belongs in Calvary,” she said. “You paid for the plot, didn’t you?” The girl nodded slowly. “Well, that’s where he’ll go.”

The story’s tone is tender but unsentimental. Even the slightest phrases bloom in the damp, gray atmosphere: “the terrible scent of doused fire on the winter air”; “a glass of tea on the edge of a folded newspaper”; “a green scent coaxed out of dried reeds”; “the rusty stains on the blue ticking of the mattress”; two nuns side by side on a couch, asleep, “puffed into their black cloaks like gulls on a pier.”

Was Sister St. Savior successful in getting the young man’s body buried in Calvary Cemetery? The ending suggests she wasn’t. But it’s not clear. The ending is satisfyingly ambiguous. “These Short, Dark Days” is a great story. I enjoyed it immensely.

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