Author: J.P. Donleavy
Description: While this collection is marred by too many ultra-short pieces (before flash fiction) that nick the surface and dissolve from memory shortly after reading, there are three stories that really show Donleavy as masterful. Balancing two elements of writing that can drown a story one way or the other, Donleavy succeeds at weaving the melancholic and the satirical.
‘A Fairy Tale of New York’, ‘Franz F’ and especially ‘Whither Wigwams’ – all taking place in Manhattan and Boston, and focusing on a disillusioned traveler, the stranger in a strange land, the academic/the artist without place, without home. In ‘Fairy Tale’ an ex-Pat is on a journey from the UK back to his birthplace of New York City, mainly to show his wife ‘the great land’, America – but the wife falls ill on the boat and once docking in lower Manhattan, she’s carted off in a makeshift coffin. The story flawlessly shows this husband’s outer and inner struggles as he meanders this strange city, trying to find a decent funeral home to give her a proper funeral. Comedic, absurd and yet leaden with a grey, pressing sadness. ‘Franz F’ moves north to Boston and Donleavy dips into the glum existence of a Russian immigrant in a slum of the North End. Franz has a roach problem, an aching heart, and he wonders if and when (if ever) he can make an acquaintance with one of the ‘horse-faced women’ of this city – the Brahmin class. Of course, things don’t go as easily as they appear in his daydreams. And ‘Whither Wigwams’ – mainly a wounded love song to New York City, and how it is inspirational a city, yet also parasitic. The characters thrust themselves through the constant flow of the city only to yearn for a new land, a new life in Europe, but most of them can’t find a way out of the endless streets, subway stops, bars and nightclubs. And if they stay they know that their options are limited: the middle-class, the train tracks of the MTA, or the corridors of Bellevue mental hosptial. Tragic at points, but with an ending so absurdly uplifting.
If it weren’t for these three tales, then the collection would be strictly for Donleavy completists. Otherwise, if I were teaching short fiction, ‘A Fairy Tale’ would surely be on the list.
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