I discovered a new author this week. I have needed a new one for a long time. Between this and that and the state of the world, my well of Really Good Modern Authors has run quite dry. I tried reading The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime a few weeks ago: fabulous style and even better narrative voice, but foul language and crudeness. Several months past—or was it last year?—I thought I had hit upon a gold mine in Frank Delaney’s massive book on Ireland. He has a lyrical style of writing and his character descriptions were outstanding; but again, the foul language and crudeness were enough to deter me from what could have been a marvelous read. This week, however, I found a good one. Not a novelist, though I believe he has written a few lengthy works, but a writer of short stories. Really Good Short Stories. His (pseudo)name is Henry—O. Henry. Why I have never discovered him before is a Really Good Question worth pondering later; for now I will only applaud Sonlight for once again bringing me into the presence of a master.
From the very first story I read of O. Henry’s (I have been reading them all this week), "The Gift of the Magi," to the one I gobbled up this morning, "Shoes," I was hooked. He has an elegant style of the sort that appeals to me: a massive vocabulary and lots of literary allusion (some of this was a little over my head, but I had the advantage of study notes to bail me out). Then there is his wit. Henry knows how to draw a snort, a chuckle, a chortle, a laugh. Though this aspect of his style by no means rivals Wodehouse, for example, it is still humor in its own right. In fact, if we are going by comparisons I think his wit finds the medium between Twain and Wodehouse: he has some of the bluntness and boldness of the American with the class of the Brit. He is astute as well, and nearly all of his stories deliver either a delicious piece of social satire or a really nice little explanation of one of his pet theories about the world in general. In short, the man’s a word smith, and one that may very well rival Hephaestus himself in the art.
Another highlight of Henry’s stories is his masterful depiction of characters. He has Charles Dickens’s knack of taking a stereotype and developing it into a satisfying character. I can easily "recognize" many of the people in his stories, and yet he somehow manages to portray each one in a fresh light. In "The Enchanted Profile," for instance, he takes a prunes ‘n’ prisms typist (she reminded me a bit of Marilla Cuthbert) and depicts a startling resemblance between her and the Lady—well, I had better leave that one for you to discover.
As to the endings of the stories: call them "startling," "disconcerting," or "satisfying," all three words are suited for describing the way in which Henry often wraps up his tales. He lets a story roll along and then jerks it to a close with a surprise event. He does not neglect to provide his readers with solid conclusions, but he is not afraid of disrupting their well-ordered states of mind either. Time and again my study notes asked if I had expected the ending. Time and again my answer was "No!"
Last of all, there is structure. Structure is one of those tricky things that must be got "just right" if you wish to permanently capture your audience. O. Henry does this with skill and in various and sundry ways. Sometimes he wraps one story in another (as in "An Unfinished Story," and "A Midsummer Knight’s Dream"—which last was one of my favorites). Sometimes he begins with a brief essay and then uses a story to prove his point. In "The Squared Circle" he postulates that circles are natural, that squares are artificial, and that when the natural enters the artificial it becomes "squared"; next he tells a brilliant story that is itself an illustration of a "squared circle." Sometimes Henry mixes fact and fiction, as in "A Municipal Report" where he intersperses a story set in Nashville, TN with bites of information about that town’s economy, industry, and so forth.
The Introduction to The Best Short Stories of O. Henry says "many of his stories were glib and superficial rather than profound" but I allow for this. After all, you might expect to find some works of imperfection in a collective body that numbered over 600 stories. Occasionally the sheer immensity of Henry’s vocabulary and his complex plot structures gets the better of me, and I am forced to realize that I, the reader, am a notch below the author where education and skill are concerned. But, all this aside, I am at present, an enthusiast of O. Henry. I think a final quote from the Introduction nicely sums up my opinion:
"O. Henry, at his best . . .deserves rank with America’s greatest masters of the short story . . . Such tales as "A Municipal Report," "An Unfinished Story,". . . and "Two Thanksgiving Day Gentlemen". . .are gems of their kind: mellow, humorous, ironic, ingenious, and shot through with that eminently salable quality known as ‘human interest.’"