Friday, November 18, 2016

"The Third Prize" (1928)

Story by A.E. Coppard not available online.

A.E. Coppard's story is a kind of morality tale with an ironic twist—which isn't that ironic, or even much of a twist, at least not to today's cynics. Two young Britons are both "very fond of foot-racing." During an August bank holiday they travel to a town that is holding races as part of a larger festival. They pick up a couple of chicks. In the one-mile race, one of the men, George Robins, wins third prize—a sovereign. When he goes to collect he finds there has been a clerical error, and another man is listed as the winner. George first claims he is that man and collects the sovereign. After a little while he goes back and sets the record straight, upon which he is awarded another sovereign, with apologies. His friend is unhappy about this deception, seeing it as a character failing, but the girls are impressed. Shortly after that they see a blind man playing music for money in the streets. A shady character has stepped forward to help him. George hands off one of the sovereigns to the shady character, intending it for the blind man. The girls are even more impressed now, and if his friend still has misgivings, at least George seems to feel he has set any sin to rights. Meanwhile, the shady character pockets the sovereign and doesn't give it to the blind man. The end. Though not even a century old, the language of this story is dense and antiquated, often dancing around its points, sometimes barely making them even indirectly. Parsing is required, in other words. This one tried my patience, to get to my point. What was intended as color—and may have read that way, and may still to some—feels much more like caricature, with an air of condescension. It's hard to make out much beyond good old irredeemable human depravity, rendered lightly as joke, though I saw some summaries that talked about the ins and outs of redemption and intentionality, so heads up, if you're into redemption and intentionality scenarios. But for me it's a couple of guys go to the carnival, have some harmless adventures, and come home again, no harm no foul. I'm not sure I even understand why this story exists, let alone what it's doing in an anthology of short story masterpieces edited by Robert Penn Warren. Is it really the color?

Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine

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