Thursday, January 26, 2017

"The Ledge" (1959)

Read story by Lawrence Sargent Hall online.

This story is a classic in the vein of "man vs. nature," done extraordinarily well. It also helped me identify a little better the peculiar rhythms of so many stories. All fiction attempts to start strong, with memorable or intriguing first sentences and paragraphs, but they also have serious set-up to get out of the way as well. Novels are one thing but short stories have even less space for that. Thus, as often happens, "The Ledge" starts out slow, as it lays out the premise. It's Christmas, and an experienced fisherman is taking his son and nephew out to hunt sea ducks. The setting appears to be New England though it's never specified. They are hunting in a place that is dependent on dispositions of the tide. It's dangerous, and the fisherman's wife wishes he wouldn't go, but he is experienced and the boys want to do it. They have new guns they got as gifts for Christmas. The fisherman is gruff, short-tempered, and harsh with others when he is under stress. We see this when he realizes he has forgotten to bring his tobacco with him on the day-long venture. In fact, he's not that likable, except that with the boys you sense some depth of commitment. All this in the first third or half of the story makes it slow going. Yet then, when they are suddenly in danger, all the explanation starts to pay off. We grasp the emotional realities as they suddenly unfold in all their complexity—and the physical realities too, of course. There are plainly manipulative aspects going on here. It's Christmas, it's generational male bonding, there's even a sad aging dog. But they have been introduced so deliberately and so slyly we hardly question them. They just work on us, and are there when it becomes a riveting passage of high drama. The fact that it's Christmas is mentioned in the first sentence, along with a lot of boring baggage about Christmas and the fisherman's family and the fisherman—all useful information for later, it turns out. The dog turns up as they are setting out on the hunt, a minor element of warmth and then mostly forgotten. Fiction's problem of the tedious set-up—"you have to stick with it a little bit even if it seems slow"—reminds me a little of the bromide about music that you "have to listen to it a few times" (never mind re: movies). There are very good stories, short and long, that can be instantly memorable (especially with novels, where there is more room to work in the set-up), but it doesn't happen often. Once we realize a story's greatness we may forget the slow going in the beginning. This could be a matter of personal taste. Hall's language is always clean and straightforward, and writers like that can be more captivating for me from the start. This is a good one.

American Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Raymond Carver and Tom Jenks

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