Edna O’Brien, Saints and Sinner: Stories
During the falls of my freshman and sophomore years of high school, while then-athletes and soon-to-be couch potatoes banged into each other with football pads, I ran cross country instead. Preferring the thoughtful elegance of basketball—my winter sport—to the pseudo-Darwinism of the gridiron anyway, I was glad to have passed on the sport of mules. (Just kidding, you former football players and current couch potatoes, and could you please pass the French Onion dip?)
Still, I hated cross country. It’s a great sport, builds character, separates the men from the boys (unless girls’ cross country), etc., but there sure was a lot of running involved. Plus, cross country always began in August. In New Orleans. At 3.30pm.
Dave Rice was my cross country coach, and he was a great guy. He lived right across the street from my school, had coached since the 19th century, and truly dedicated his life to generations of students. Coach Rice also had a very peculiar command of the English language, as is the case with many New Orleanians. One word that in particular sparked reaction occurred on days where instead of steady jogging, we’d do long series of sprinting, then jogging, then sprinting, then walking, the sprinting, then fainting, then sprinting, then “Clear!!!” [zap] “Clear!!!” [zap], then sprinting, then driving home. On such days, we cowered before the prospect of certain exhaustion that leered before us, but the sheer despair that enveloped us was slightly ameliorated by the fact that Coach Rice called this sprint-stop-sprint routine “fartleks.” “Fartlek” is pronounced just like it’s spelled, and we were astounded and delighted that “fartlek” was one word that Coach Rice nailed. The spasmodic laughter that struck us 15 year-olds every time Coach Rice pronounced “fartlek” was thunderous. “Time to do fartleks, boys!” “Do what, Coach?” “Fartleks!” “I thought that was for Tuesdays?” “No, today we’re fartleking!” “Doing what?” “Fartleks!” “How long?” “One hour of fartleks!” “By ourselves or together?” Et cetera, for as long as we could put off the misery of interval training. The roar of our laughter was only dampened by the sobering knowledge that we were wasting oxygen that would have come in very handy later on.
Adolescence aside, fartleks were excruciating. You fully invest in an all-out run, exhausting yourself, but then you only have moments to recover before doing the same thing all over again.
I find reading short story collections to be like fartleks. I can handle novels far more easily: they’re a leisurely jog with only gentle inclines, merciful slopes, steady pacing, then kick it up at the end. Books of short stories, on the other hand, require me in the space of only a few pages to give myself over to a set of characters, a plot, and a setting that will soon end, and then I take a deep breath just for a moment before sprinting ahead into a completely different fictional world. I’m spent many times over by the end of the work.
For all of my giggling and grousing about high school fartleks, however, I still do interval training every week or so when I jog in Tech Terrace Park. Sure, there’s nothing as tiring, but regular jogging isn’t as exhilarating as fartleks, either. I guess that’s why, despite the debilitating demands, I love to read short story collections. (Life is short; read hard.)
Casting around for a book of short stories, I found Saints and Sinners: Stories, written by Edna O’Brien, a grande dame of Irish literature. O’Brien has written many things, including the controversial-for-the-time The Country Girls in 1960, and is a master of Irish English. (I would have loved to have overheard a conversation between her and Coach Rice.) So many things came together to turn me into a homer for this volume: the short story genre itself, verdant prose, Irishness, a title that appealed to my hometown sensibilities and current vocation, Kindle friendly. I’m in! Saints and Sinners is wonderful. I’m working through piecemeal John Cheever’s Pulitzer-winning short story compendium, and while it’s longer than Saints and Sinners, I’m not sure it’s better.
For starters, short stories are sour if they don’t get the details right. Interestingly, I tend to believe that Irish writers in particular have an ear for the little things. In “Send My Roots Rain,” a vignette about an aging single woman, with a boyfriend one night she “watched a video of Elvis that she had rented, sitting in her front room by a warm fire and drinking red wine from the good glasses.” Now, Mrs. Siegel taught me in fifth grade that using the word “good” in fiction is banal, but the “good” in this O’Brien sentence is sublime. We have here close third-person narration, in which the voice of the narrator approximates the perspective of the main character. Consider, then, that rich people don’t differentiate between the “good” wine glasses and “bad” wine glasses. It’s just wine glasses to them. Ditto, actually, for the truly destitute: it’s just a glass, and be thankful you have one. But imagine, however, a woman rich enough to have a couple of “good” wine glasses, yet poor enough to have to save them for special occasions, and aware enough to know that every time she enjoys a Cabernet there’s a choice to me made. Envision this woman, as her boyfriend pops a video (Elvis, no less) into the VCR, being called to the couch just as she opens the cabinet and quickly calculates whether the evening will be a “good” glass or “bad” glass kind of night. Picture the pathos and loneliness that must be woven into a life beset by such decisions. Finally, understand that what took me three sentences to explain, O’Brien captures simply in “good.”
Another example of O’Brien’s mastery of detail: “Green Georgette” tells of an impoverished young girl who chances into a car ride with the wealthiest and gaudiest woman in town, whom the girl has always idolized from a distance. Who else but a small girl in this type of situation would reflect, “I try to maneuver a seat in front of her, so that I can turn round and stare at her, and take note of her little habits and how often she swallows. She blinks with such languor”? As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago at church, I’m still relatively new to the world of girls, but I know that if either of my daughters would as pre-teens be enraptured by a genteel lady, they alone and they in particular would notice the languor of her blinking.
Details aside, O’Brien likewise possesses a sure hand when it comes to place, as seemingly all Irish writers do. (What is it about Ireland that makes Irish writers so Irish?) Strangely, though, Irish attachment to place seems to me consistently and deeply ambivalent. One character in Saints and Sinners observes, “The odd thing was that you can be attached to a place, or a person, you don’t particularly like, and [I] put it down to mankind’s addiction to habit.” I’ve never read an Irish fiction or poem that doesn’t say something like this. At least from an outsider’s (read: my) perspective, the remarkable aspect of Ireland-as-place in the eyes of its natives is its givenness. By contrast, seldom is Ireland a comfortable proposition, but neither is anyone else. One person in “Shovel Kings” speaks of another, “He doesn’t belong in England, and ditto Ireland.” Of course, the man in question is Irish.
Perhaps it’s this sense of unease yet connection to place that draws me to Irish literature. Place-but-displacement is a profoundly Biblical idea. Ireland may be wretched, but it’s home, except that it can’t be. Ditto England, or America, or wherever. In a fallen world, our connection to place always transmits with static, the clear signal just beyond any twist of the dial. Most people in Saints and Sinners wrestle with this dialectic, and one even registers that ambivalence for place is actually a reaching for a better country: “Soon as I can walk I will set out. To find another, like me. We will recognize each other by the rosary of poppies and the speech of our eyes. We, the defiled ones, in our thousands, scattered, trudging over the land, the petrified land, in search of a safe haven, if such a place exists. Many and terrible are the roads that lead to home.” It’s no coincidence that the woman voicing these words—the story is “Plunder”—has been sexually brutalized to death. There must be a better place for us.
It takes some audacity to title a book Saints and Sinners; it’s pulpy to a fault, unless the meat of the book is anything but. I’m glad that Edna O’Brien took the risk on a could-be-bad title. I don’t know if she harbors any religious convictions, but that’s really beside the point; fittingly, Saints and Sinners through short fiction tells a meta-story of creation, fall, and redemption. Truly we are sinners, and it’s a symptom of the disease that we may not even know it. The tragic spinster of “Sinners” has died before her death, for “her heart had walled up a long time ago, she had forgotten the little things, the little pleasures, the give-and-take that is life. She had even forgotten her own sins.” This person is walking dead, and guilty.
Another story in Saints and Sinners ends with a vision of heaven. In “My Two Mothers,” a middle aged-woman mourns the loss of her surrogate mother, but she experiences a grieving not untouched by hope. She muses, “I wait for the dream that leads us beyond the ghastly white spittoon and the metal razor [of a hospital], to fields and meadows, up onto the mountain, that bluish realm, half earth, half sky, . . to begin our journey all over again, to live our lives as they should have been lived, happy, trusting, and free of shame.” This is a universal longing and hope, I believe.
The tragedy, however, is that our hope of heaven is assailed by our own guilt and despair. Can we ever somehow return and live our lives as they should have been lived, and can we ourselves truly live as happy, trusting, and free of shame? Is that possible, and—haunting to consider—would we even deserve it? O’Brien answers these questions in a different story than “My Two Mothers,” as the answer must come from a different story, this time from “Black Flower.” And could the answer come in anything but a prayer? “How beautiful it would be if one of us could step forward and volunteer to become the warrior for others. What a firmament of love ours would be.”