Thursday, March 02, 2017

"The Ransom of Red Chief" (1907)

Read story by O. Henry online.

O. Henry's comical kidnapping story has less of a twist ending and more of a punchline to a joke and there should probably be a rimshot too, with a sad horn. In that way it's not as typical for Henry as, say, "The Gift of the Magi." But it seems typical enough for its time, reminiscent of the wry American work of Mark Twain or Booth Tarkington. It features two would-be professional criminals: Sam, the first-person narrator, and Bill, his sidekick, who is more or less the straight man. They are in Alabama and decide to kidnap a boy to raise some quick and easy money. The story predates by decades the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh's baby, which took a lot of the fun out of such crimes. It's also way ahead of the kind of legendary desperate outlaws who showed up in the Depression years, hunted by the FBI, although Jesse James and other cowboy bandits were in Henry's recent past then. It's marked by a kind of slangy criminal lingo that Damon Runyon and, even later, Nelson Algren would use just as extensively. I read this in junior high or maybe even grade school, and it surprises me a little that anyone thought kids that age would get something out of it. Maybe because it features a boy of about that age? Anyway, Sam and Bill can't control him—Bill especially is regularly made a victim by the boy. Let's say it doesn't seem very realistic and leave it at that, especially in this era of elaborate ultraviolence. I guess you could say it's an antecedent to the Home Alone movies. I actually found it charming and comical, opting for conscious suspension of disbelief. It's funny what the kid gets away with and the repetitions with Bill as the eternal victim are pretty good too, some very neat ba-da-bings. In my childhood travels with O. Henry it seemed like guessing the twist was all part of the fun and the challenge. But what surprised me most about this story is how well it's done, a frothy little delight with no regrets, and all elements played well.

By the way, I found this story in a top 10 list of most popular Library of America Story of the Week selections, which came in an email newsletter. Story of the Week has been a worthy project of five years or more now. I decided to add all 10 to the stories from the three anthologies that are providing the bulk of my long short story project. Then I felt like even more needed to be added—no Chekhov anywhere? that didn't seem right for a look at short stories—so I sprinkled in a few more (many cherry-picked from the upper realms of this great list of most-anthologized stories), to get to a grand total of 125. This might not seem like a particularly round number but it's actually a very good one: five cubed, which means it produces most satisfying numbers when I go to measure my progress. For example, with this story, I am now exactly 41.6% through this project. Only 58.4% to go!

Library of America Story of the Week (Library of America)

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