Tuesday, November 15, 2016
This moody and atmospheric story by Evan S. Connell, set in the boardwalk of Santa Cruz, California, during the off-season, struck me as comical, though looking into what others say it doesn't seem to be generally taken that way. The diner that provides the specific setting is owned by Pendleton. One of his regular is "a short fat Mexican who worked as a mechanic." Pendleton thinks of him as "Toltec" because of his resemblance to Toltec idols. He calls him "Pablo," which offends the Mexican. The Mexican is a regular, showing up most nights for dinner, pinball, and music from a jukebox. One night he shows up with a companion, who is taller, better dressed, more handsome, and silent. Silent, that is, until the Mexican plays music, at which point he begins to raise a mighty sound. It's actually hard to make out what is going on at first: "His lips had peeled away from his teeth like those of a jaguar tearing meat, and the veins of his neck looked ready to pop. In the shrill screams bursting from his throat was a memory of the Moors, the ching of Arab cymbals, of rags and of running feet through all the marketplaces of the East." It's singing. At first Pendleton tries to get him to stop—but the strange tall man doesn't respond to being addressed, only carries on that way whenever the Mexican plays music. After about a week of it, Pendleton notices that he's getting more customers for dinner. The strange tall man has started to become an attraction, even though it's the off-season. Here's where I started to take it as comedy. The eruption of noise appears to be unpleasant but it's the spectacle itself, the mere fact that it happens—the grotesquerie—that seems to be drawing people. Tracking down other interpretations, they speak of it more as a clash of cultures, where the California tourists are ignorant rubes and the strange tall man represents the dignity of an alien culture. But I don't get that. From the descriptions, the narrator seems as convinced of its alienating nonmusical qualities as Pendleton or any of the tourists, who seem to be there to gawk. He provides colorful detail ("the ching of Arab cymbals") but the experience does not sound very appealing. Then, just as Pendleton figures out he has something of a cash cow for his diner, the strange tall man disappears. The Mexican says he's out on a drunk. A few nights later, that he's recovering from the drunk. When the strange tall man finally comes back, he's apparently ill, fading away, and by story's end he's gone, leaving only the memory of the image of him wailing and shrieking, surrounded by fascinated Californians and visitors.
American Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Raymond Carver and Tom Jenks