by Todd Walton, July 7, 2011
“Every art has its secrets, and the secrets of distilling are being lost the way the old songs were lost. When I was a boy there wasn’t a man in the barony but had a hundred songs in his head, but with people running here, there and everywhere, the songs were lost…” — Frank O’Connor
I am reading The Collected Stories of Frank O’Connor for the third time in twelve years. Enough time has passed since my last reading of his remarkable stories so I have forgotten sufficient details and plot twists and endings to make the stories new to me again; and in some ways they are better than new because I know them now as I know favorite pieces of music or beloved paintings, and in this further experience of them I discover more and more of the genius they contain.
Frank O’Connor, who died in 1966, was Irish, and most of his stories are set in Cork and Dublin in the 1940’s and 1950’s. O’Connor was hailed by W.B. Yeats as the Chekhov of Irish literature, yet very few of my well-read friends have heard of him, and I, a voracious story reader since childhood, discovered him relatively late in my incessant search for great stories. I should note that many of my well-read friends are aghast at my reading habits which now largely involve reading and re-reading a relatively few dead writers of short stories, with barely an American among them. I find the most ballyhooed contemporary writers unreadable, and if not for a Brit or two, regarding fiction it could truly be said I read only the dead.
I have imbibed Kim by Rudyard Kipling seven times in the last twenty years, and I will probably read that astonishing book again soon. I do not read many novels, even those written by my favorite dead short story writers, so Kim is something of an anomaly for me. Every line of that book is to my taste exquisite poetry; I don’t so much read Kim as inhabit its pages. But I was speaking of Frank O’Connor.
“What makes him so great?” asked one of my well-read friends who had never heard of Frank O’Connor.
“Well,” I said, “when I read Bashevis Singer or Maugham or Wharton or Maupassant, I am enthralled by their artistry and insight, yet I know I am capable of writing stories that at least approximate the structures of their creations if not the mastery of their lines. But Frank O’Connor’s stories, though only eight to fifteen pages in length, are essentially novels with plots spanning many years, yet they have the power and immediacy and emotional depth of a D.H. Lawrence story focusing on a particular moment in time.”
We would rather be ruined than changed;
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die. — W.H. Auden
Nearly all of Frank O’Connor’s short stories illuminate the lives of people who would rather be living other lives—a phenomenon that has always fascinated me. Born to parents who did not live the lives they said they wanted to live, and having known many people, including myself, who have spent large chunks of our lives not living the lives we say we want to live, O’Connor’s stories continuously strike chords in me and ring loud bells of recognition. I am not speaking of people who wish to be something or someone beyond the reach of all but a few mortals, but of people who knowingly repeat, for years and decades and lifetimes, painfully self-limiting patterns they are entirely aware of yet feel powerless to change.
My father found himself at fifty entrenched in a life he loathed, living where he did not want to live, and married to a woman, my mother, he didn’t like. The last of his four children had finally escaped his direct control, he owned a house outright worth millions, and he was a successful psychotherapist, a trade he might have plied anywhere; yet he could not bring himself to change, and so daily drank himself into a stupor and outwardly blamed his misfortune on my mother.
I hitchhiked to Atherton from Santa Cruz for my father’s fiftieth birthday party, though at the age of twenty-three I was a source of shame and disappointment to my parents. I had defied their wishes and dropped out of college to create a life that made sense to me apart from the expectations of others. I had lived as a vagabond from nineteen to twenty-two, and only recently settled among the communards of Santa Cruz (circa 1972) where I earned my living as a musician and laborer. I did not often visit my parents in those days because to tarry in my father’s presence was to invite diatribes of condemnation.
On the morning following his fiftieth birthday party, as I was about to head home to Santa Cruz, my father invited me to join him for coffee on the terrace. I vividly remember that morning—a scorcher in late August—my father looking haggard and sad, the strong black coffee not yet mitigating his hangover. And before he could launch into yet another sermon about me pissing my life away, I said, “So, Dad, now that you’re fifty…if you could live anywhere and be anything you want to be, what would you do?”
“Anything and anywhere?” he said, slowly shaking his head. “I would buy a house near the water in Carmel and be a sculptor. Wood and stone.”
“Why don’t you?”
“I’m too old,” he said bitterly. “And your mother would never let me.”
“Sure she would. She loves Carmel. She loves the ocean. And you know she’s happiest when you’re happy.”
“No,” he said, continuing to shake his head. “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”
“Fifty is not old, Dad. Why not give it a try?”
“You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about,” he said, sneering at me. “Your mother’d never allow it. I’d have to divorce her to have the life I want.”
“So why not get a divorce?”
“She couldn’t survive without me. I wouldn’t do that to her. No…we’re stuck.”
Thus spoke the renowned psychotherapist; and not a word of what he said was true. My mother had recently begun practicing law and was earning a good salary. She would gladly have sold their crumbling house to start anew in Carmel; and had my father been bold enough to divorce her, she would have settled for a fortune and lived no more unhappily than she did in their loveless marriage.
We said our uneasy goodbyes and I walked down the hill to the Alameda de las Pulgas where I got a ride from a guy in a convertible Volkswagen going to Woodside. From Woodside I rode in the back of a pickup over the crest of the coast range and down through the redwoods of La Honda to the hamlet of San Gregorio where I bought cheese and bread and chocolate for a picnic on the beach. And as I walked out to the ocean, I passed the beautiful farm near the mouth of the San Gregorio where my father had taken me when I was eight and again when I was twelve, a farm for sale that my father said he wanted to buy so he could live near the ocean and sculpt wood and stone.
“Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on children than the unlived life of the parent.” — Carl Jung
A sunny morning, the tide stupendously low, I walk the far reaches of Big River beach, and sing a wordless song to the drone of the roaring waves. Now an osprey plummets out of the cerulean sky and splashes down in the nearby shallows to catch a silver sliver of life.
“Good omen,” I say, watching in awe as the raptor flies up from the water to roost in a cliff-hanging pine; and sure enough, here ahead of me on the untrod sand is a magnificent walking stick, long and sturdy and bleached white by the sun.
Enter the pelicans—twelve apostles—fifty yards offshore, gliding northward in an undulating line, the tips of their wings nearly touching the dark waters.
“Omens galore,” I say, as the osprey dives again.
A blog archive of Todd’s AVA essays is at UnderTheTableBooks.com.