Tuesday, November 01, 2016
Carol Bly's short story does a pretty neat trick of tying together two kinds of 20th-century American fiction: the frame features a Cheever / Carver postwar focus on suburban life, while the long illustrative anecdote at its center is something Papa Hemingway himself might have called "very fine." Maybe that's one reason it ended up in two of the three collections I'm covering. In the frame story, Emily Anderson, a woman in her 50s or 60s, is responsible for introducing the speaker at that month's meeting of the Minnesota chapter of a national organization of Norwegian-American immigrants, Tusend Hjem, for which she volunteers. She is widowed or divorced, and at the time of the story her 24-year-old daughter is staying with her at her home in suburban St. Paul with a view of White Bear Lake. Her daughter is a therapist and her marriage appears to be foundering. As it happens, Emily knows the speaker at that night's Tusend Hjem meeting, which is one reason she was asked to introduce him. She's also one of the key volunteers in the organization. The speaker is named Willi Varig. He was a Norwegian war hero in World War II. Emily knew him when she lived in Oslo in the '50s. Varig, it turns out, is a lush—which is as Emily remembers him—and he is blind drunk that night. He can barely make coherent remarks ahead of a documentary to be shown about Norwegian war heroes on a 16-mm projector. But the projector malfunctions. And Varig has passed out. So it's up to Emily to go to the lectern and tell his story, which she does in very long paragraphs that occupy about a third of this story. It's a harrowing tale of enduring torture at the hands of Nazis, holding out as long as he had to in order to protect Norwegian resistance fighters fleeing the German-occupied country. It's more delicate about the torture than what we might expect these days, but we're given enough details to get the idea, and Varig's pitiful display of drunkenness completes the picture. There might be an argument about Bly's ambitions, but the Hemingway stoicism is actually more general to the whole story, and not just the war story, because it's more a feature of Emily's, who has more than just fond and indulgent regard for Varig. By the way she tells her story it's apparent how much respect she has for him. The multiple levels on which the title may be taken are thus affirmed, with Emily not just speaking about a hero, but also simply speaking. She is a hero too.
American Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Raymond Carver and Tom Jenks
The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories, ed. Tobias Wolff