Monday, February 7, 2011

The Heart of the West by O Henry


O Henry wrote nothing but short stories.
This amazes me. To write a short story you need to pick something just the right length, an anecdote almost, capable of being spun out into a story. There needs to be quick hook, and then another quick twist at the end. Characters need to be made sympathetic in an instant, and the plot cannot unfold slowly over the course of years. The idea of trying to write a really good short story makes me dissolve in horror.
O Henry's short stories are not of uniform quality. Everyone's heard about his most famous short story, The Gift of the Magi, which is one of those simple, sentimental, achingly romantic ideas that will catapult you into the literary stratosphere and keep you there long after people have stopped reading you for fun. Some of his stories lack that brilliance, but they are all simple and sentimental.
The Heart of the West is entirely comprised of stories set in the American West, and may have been partially based on tales—tall or true—which O Henry heard during his wanderings in Texas and Mexico.
There are nineteen short stories in this collection, some more and some less memorable. Romance among the cattle-royalty is a recurring feature, as are the adventures in love and scraps of the humbler cow-punching classes. All of them could be told as quick anecdotes over a campfire; maybe some of them were once. O Henry has polished them up to a high shine, peopled them with vivid characters, and wrung from them every drop of humour or pathos.
As for the humour, “Telemachus, Friend” is the droll tale of a man whose staunch loyalty to his best friend prevents him courting their mutual crush without said best friend present, while “Cupid a la Carte”, narrated in hilariously grandiose style, tells the story of a man's battle to overcome his sweetheart's peculiar aversion to the eating habit. For sentimentality, try “Christmas by Injunction,” “A Chaparral Prince”, which plays on your heartstrings so obviously as to provoke indifference to the plight of its bathetic child heroine, or “The Reformation of Calliope”, which more pleasantly tells how a very bad man tried to put on his best front for his mama.
My favourites are “An Afternoon Miracle” and “The Princess and the Puma.” The former has the strong, silent lawman fighting the villainous outlaw for the safety of an exotic beauty, but not all is as it appears, and I love how O Henry brings unique, slightly subversive characters out of these familiar archetypes. The latter tells of an abortive attempt by a cowboy to impress the daughter of a local cattle-king, the twist of which I found completely hilarious.
The most memorable stories from this collection are both a bit different from the rest. “The Sphinx Apple” is the one story that does not seem pat or easy; here the last few paragraphs put a dead end to the fanciful flights of the rest of the story, and silences all the characters with delicate irony. “The Caballero's Way” is grand-opera tragedy, complete with love, betrayal, and revenge.
You might say that O Henry is formulaic, but I'd rather put it this way: He knows his job, and he does it well. These stories don't seek to overturn tables or smash barriers; they neither storm the Bastille nor nail up their ninety-five theses. But they are all written with wit, love, and that little bit of wisdom that makes you love the vagaries of humanity...even the most sentimental ones.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Just finished this book, and I completely agree with you. I have a couple of other O. Henry collections, which I hope to get to someday. (In fact, that is the project I am working on. I have many books that I bought, intending to read them "someday," and someday is today!)

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