Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Ballad of the Sad Cafe by Carson McCullers

And the confusing point is this: All useful things have a price, and are bought only with money, as that is the way the world is run. You know without having to reason about it the price of a bale of cotton, or a quart of molasses. But no value has been put on human life; it is given to us free and taken without being paid for. What is it worth? If you look around, at times the value may seem to be little or nothing at all. Often after you have sweated and tried and things are not better for you, there comes a feeling deep down in the soul that you are not worth much.

Carson McCullers really only has one subject, I think: unrequited love.  More than anyone, she understands what it means for love to be unrequited--only very rarely are people consciously spurned by the objects of their affection.  Rather, most love goes unspoken, unseen by the person it adores, and often unacknowledged even by the person who possesses it.  Sometimes it's a romantic love, but not always, or even often: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is about the unrequited love of an entire town for the mute John Singer, and The Member of the Wedding is about Frankie's inability to share in the love of her brother and his fiancee.  The homosexual desire of the Captain in Reflections in a Golden Eye is buried so deep that even he doesn't even recognize it.

"The Ballad of the Sad Cafe," the central novella of this collection of McCullers' stories, examines unrequited love in its most teen-movie of forms: the love triangle.  Miss Amelia, a bitter and taciturn shop-owner, is suddenly softened by the arrival in town of a hunchbacked dwarf claiming to be her cousin.  Cousin Lymon and Amelia open the title cafe together, which brings a new life to the town that parallels their own heightened feelings for each other.  But when Amelia's ex-husband, an amoral lout named Marvin Macy, returns, she watches helplessly as Cousin Lymon develops a puerile attachment to him.  He lurks around the cafe, causing mild trouble, until Amelia and Marvin Macy finally come to blows--and Cousin Lymon, at the last second, attacks Miss Amelia from behind.  Marvin and Lymon destroy the cafe on their way out of town:

They unlocked the private cabinet of curios and took everything in it.

They broke the mechanical piano.

They carved terrible words on the cafe tables.

They found the watch that opened in the back to show a picture of a waterfall and took that also.

They poured a gallon of sorghum syrup all over the kitchen floor and smashed the jars of preserves.

They went out in the swamp and completely wrecked the still, ruining the big new condenser and the cooler, and setting fire to the shack itself.

They fixed a dish of Miss Amelia's favorite food, grits with sausage, seasoned it with enough poison to kill of the county, and placed this dish temptingly on the cafe counter.

They did everything ruinous they could think of without actually breaking into the office where Miss Amelia stayed the night.  Then they went off together, the two of them.

I especially love the "terrible words" they carved on the tables--McCullers is a virtuoso at adding the telling detail, but she's just as canny about leaving some things out.  I also loved when, in a story called "The Jockey," the diminutive title figure carefully takes out a cigarette and cuts it in half with a penknife so it's his own size.  (McCullers loves weirdos--jockeys, dwarves, etc.)

The other stories are shorter, more experimental.  "Sad Cafe" has so many of McCullers' hallmarks--the small southern town, the physical oddball, etc.--that it might be the work of a particularly good imitator.  The other stories see her treading unfamiliar ground.  There are stories set in Ohio, and in New York City, where McCullers lived most of her adult life, but which seem outside the realm of her interests.  But each of them has the same lyric quality, the same interest in human failures and frailties, and the same vast empathy.

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