Thursday, June 01, 2017

"Virga Vay & Allan Cedar" (1945)

Read story by Sinclair Lewis online.

I accept this as a short story, because I found it in a book called Short Story Masterpieces. But the fact is, it's an excerpt from a novel, a very good one, Cass Timberlane. "Virga Vay & Allan Cedar" is part of a series in the novel profiling town characters under the recurring title "An Assemblage of Husbands and Wives." These arguably stand-alone pieces alternate with chapters on the main story (compare The Grapes of Wrath, or John Dos Passos). It's a novelistic device that I think loses some of its punch without the novel's context. Even taken objectively it's closer to an anecdote or perhaps a moral tale with lesson. I suppose they're short story forms too. It's very short, less than 10 pages. It's good the way that Sinclair Lewis can be, laying bare the hollow despair beneath the Midwestern hail fellow well met bonhomie. Virga Vay (what a name) and Allan Cedar are both married but not to each other. They are conducting a tawdry and sad affair in a small Minnesota town full of busybodies and narrow people. They hatch a plan to address the impossible situation. It's not divorce and it's not murder. I will issue a spoiler alert here because the story is at some pains to keep the plan a secret from the reader for a later surprise. It is, of course (last chance), a suicide pact. Carbon monoxide via automobile, to be specific. The town is so constricting the couple feels it's their only choice. Allan Cedar is convinced they would be found wherever they tried to go. Cedar has a particularly heinous wife, as we eventually see for ourselves. Cass Timberlane makes a brief cameo. There is very good detail about the affair: they genuinely seem to love one another, but to be together they must sneak away to the outskirts of town and have their trysts in the car or on "mossy pastures." They are weak and pathetic, and reading about them makes you think you might be too. That's one reason the ending seems so unpleasant. This is where you can really feel Lewis's loathing for these small town societies. But I have to say, knowing the source novel, that I think you're better off going there and picking up these scenes along the way. This is good, but the whole novel is better. Also, I can't find much information about its publication history beyond the novel and the story anthology. I think it's possible Robert Penn Warren himself carved it out.

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

Cass Timberlane by Sinclair Lewis

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