Miss KAY Bout is distinguished from her generation of American writers in that her talent is of the rich and passionate kind which can be an embarrassment as well as a facilitation for its possessor. That she has fertility and per- sistent impulse the long list of her work reminds us ; but these gifts have always been uneasy ; she has not been able to train them to flap along impertinently or sentimentally, a la Hemingway, as others have done ; but if she is not master in her own house yet, neither is she mastered. Her fight is still on, and is more stimulating to watch than are the suc- cessive bloodless triumphs nowadays of a few others of her nation who set out at about her time on the road to being writers.
Her chief dilemma arises over form. Whether her imagina- tion, so richly crowded with symbols and images, would have attained earlier and final discipline in verse is a question which must constantly suggest itself to her readers. But when an imaginative writer can find no more in the naturalistic basis of life than an arbitrary point of departure ; when wit, humour and all the rest of the customary groundwork on which most fiction-writers self-comfortingly take up their stance, are seen to be a drag on specific talent—then it seems improbable that the novel is the requisite vessel. Some medium wherein all those pedestrian labours essential to the good novel may be taken for granted, and dismisssed, might offer more natural scope and fewer perils.
Miss Boyle, aware of this, has written short stories—some of very great beauty, but others either too heavy for their frame, or whittled into sentimentality by the author's technical uneasiness. And here in this new volume we find the struggle carried into the form of the nouvelle, the long short story. The book contains three stories , they are simultaneously different from each other and characteristic of their author ; none is perfect, but each exacts attention, and there are moments of eccentric, impassioned accuracy which are im- pressive and moving.
The eponymous story is the least good ; indeed, it often makes us shrink from its perilous and derivative sentimentality. But although, having finished it, we still wish that Miss Boyle had found a less sweet and less high-class symbol in which to reflect back to us the growth in a young girl and the climax in a defeated man of the passion of pity—still, the true violence of the end redeems accidental lapses. Big Fiddle, the third story, is conventional in its man-hunt plot, but it succeeds admirably in keeping the shadow of ancient, eternal tragedy over a lost and spineless American boy. Pity is well managed here ; the scene on Dartmoor, where he makes love to his pick-up girl, and, almost within sight of the most terrifying of prison exteriors, tries to tell her his wretched story, is as good as possible in all particulars ; in atmosphere, in dialogue, and in the psychological movements of the two personalities. And if we weary somewhat before the end, this may be because Miss Boyle has conceded too much to American fiction-convention in her conception of the central figure.
The middle story, The Bridegroom's Body, fails as a formal piece of writing because in its last pages the author scattered the purpose of all her piled-up images, and brought us out at an unlooked-for place, destroying her design. Or so it seems to me, after one reading. But I may not have fully understood the story yet. However, I shall read it again—and that will be easy, for despite eccentricity of conclusion, it is beautiful. It is prodigal and impassioned ; it is non-real ; it is heavy with the shamelessly personal trophies of sadness and dream, and its images, though cloudy and elusive, seem sometimes to gather into baroque, graceful heaviness Its content is a passing and repassing against each other, in poetic minoring, of the desires of men and women, and of mating swans ; the young and the old are here, the defeated and the valiant, the innocent and the watchful—all wounding and showing their wounds against a remote and brilliant and cloudy sky. Bravely emotional and personal ; richly conceived in a mood that is dangerous to sustain ; and cheated somehow of inevitability. But, hit or miss, passionately characteristic Kay Boyle—and some readers of modern writing will take that as very high praise.
There are two other Americans on this week's list. Mr. John Selby is an American prize-winner, and in Sam he has written a book which ro blurb-writer on earth would fail to compare to Babbitt. But the comparison is as absurd as blurb-comparisons tend to be. Sam is a bright, chippy, shallow story about an unpleasant lime go-getter in the Middle West. It tells the usual moral tale of success and its dis- appointments, but manages to do so without wisdom, and while avoiding all the dimensions and depths of human life. It is amusing enough here and c`ierc, in a rowdy way—but for this sort of story somebody should be likeable, and the trouble is that no one is—although one suspects that the author desires us to admire the preposterously complacent Martha, Sam's erring and superior wife.
In Peace, It's Wonderful Mr. Saroyan provides us with another hint of his long-heralded but too-long held-up in- tention to be a great writer. These short stories are just like all his other short stories, and if you liked them tremendously you may be content now with the same old lurching senti- mentality and gracelessness. And you may be impressed by the author's claims of greatness, herein stated without notice- able hesitation. Or perhaps that is just fun, and I'm the " sucker " who didn't see the joke.