Thursday, January 11, 2018

"The Eighty-Yard Run" (1941)

Read story by Irwin Shaw online.

Irwin Shaw's story is a case of fairly conventional midcentury white man's anxiety about failure. It's skillfully done, switching point of view between settings 15 years apart, but the basic idea seems to be how tragic it is that a white man has failed. The fact that his wife becomes successful after he has failed only makes his failure worse. You might want to argue that using football is verging on cliché but I will agree with you only on the general point about sports, because how often does football show up in literary efforts so artfully described? Not often. And the title event is not without its twist of irony. The central memory and high point in the life of Christian Darling (another one for the what-a-name file) actually occurs in a practice session, not even a real game, let alone at a crucial game point. It's even likely he has always exaggerated how good the run was, and still does. But it cemented his place on the starting team, he believes. He was soon overshadowed by others and by his own lackluster performance. The 15 years in question, by the way, span 1925, when he dazzled himself in a scrimmage, and 1940, when he is a much diminished 35-year-old. He lived high off his potential at first, marrying the daughter of a rich man who set them up. That took some of the sting off the football mediocrity. But then the Depression came and all was ruination. This story was written before Pearl Harbor—the basic arc here is about the '20s and '30s. After the stock market crash, after his father-in-law kills himself, Darling becomes a mumbling incompetent. His wife steps up and begins a successful career in publishing as a literary editor. The story is just full of clichés, but what's interesting about them is how they capture a sense of US life that would change radically with World War II. It captures that moment before Pearl Harbor in almost perfect amber. Among other things, football would go on to become the favorite sport in the US and a generator of grotesque levels of revenue. But that's far in the future for 1940, when it's still kind of a gentleman ruffian's unusual hobby, more like, say, rugby is considered today. I don't feel much sympathy for Christian Darling. I wish there were more here about his wife, Louise. I wish the whole thing were about her and told from her point of view. But you can't have everything. And it's a really nicely turned story, no matter how silly or strange some of its ideas may be, which is nothing to take for granted.

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

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