Monday, May 30, 2011

Purgatory - Steven Thor Gunnin

Author: Steven Thor Gunnin
Date: 2010
Setting: The present, some U.S. city
Availability: In the anthology Elements of the Soul

Story: A man named Blackie tells the story, mostly in the first person. He has had a near-death experience when his car goes off a bridge, and he almost drowns. He is explaining all this to a trio of Mexican brothers at a strip joint. They want to know all about what it was like to come so close to death. Blackie is telling them, but making up a lot of it as he goes along. The three Latinos do figure out that he's teasing them at first, but as Blackie continues they have trouble separating the factual from the imaginary.

He explains that his job is to prepare bodies for autopsies at the morgue. He's been having a lot of strange experiences recently. In particular, he wants to talk about a girl named Jamie who committed suicide. However, it seems that Hector, Vincente, and Guillermo also knew Jamie.

Commentary: The dead and undead are Thor Gunnin's favorite themes, and there is plenty of suspense along those lines. That said, I had some trouble following this story. Sometimes Blackie just speaks in the first person, and sometimes he is referred to in the third person.

This story may not be for everyone. There is a lot of foul language, and a clear statement that admission to heaven is based on a merit system.

Author info: Steven Thor Gunnin is a graphic designer who writes in his spare time, and is a big fan of George Romero (Night of the Living Dead). Gunnin has two stories in this anthology.

Language skills 4
Depth of meaning 2


Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Blue Hotel - Stephen Crane

Author: Stephen Crane
Date: 1899
Setting: Fort Romper, Nebraska, late 1800's
Availability: Read The Blue Hotel on line, free

Story: Three visitors disembark from the train at Romper, Nebraska, and are led to the Palace Hotel, painted a garish blue, by the proprietor, Patrick Scully. The three are an unpretentious Easterner, a very quiet man; a cowboy; and a Swede, who is the central figure in the story. Almost as soon as they arrive, a blizzard develops, so everyone is isolated at the hotel. The men, along with the proprietor’s son, Johnnie (a young adult), begin to play a card game. The Swede begins to make strange, loud pronouncements, beginning with "I suppose there have been a good many men killed in this room." He continues making inappropriate remarks throughout the game, even claiming that he knows he is going to be killed before the day is over. The others try to ignore him.

Patrick Scully, who is a good businessman, tries to placate and befriend the Swede, and to calm him down. He has some moderate success. Johnnie notes that his father is even willing to take some measure of abuse from the Swede just because the "customer is always right."

After dinner, the men begin another game of cards. The Swede is still too loud, speaks too often, and says bizarre things. At one point he accuses Johnnie of cheating. Johnnie takes offense, and the men all go out to the lee side of the hotel, still in a blizzard, to fight it out. Scully agrees that if Johnnie wants to fight for his honor that he will allow it.

When the Swede wins the fight he is still not satisfied and he leaves the hotel and makes his way into downtown, where he insinuates himself on the patrons of the town bar.

Commentary: The Blue Hotel is a story with many possible interpretations. There have been many analysts with more ability than I have who have tried to figure it out, who still can’t agree on what it means.

Almost certainly there is one set of meanings centered on the Swede’s misconception of what the "West" is like. He assumes that there is a lot of renegade actions and gunplay, and what he finds there does not match with his preconceptions.

There is a clear message of the self-fulfilling prophecy. If the Swede hadn’t been so dogmatic about what was going to happen, and so obnoxious to all, he probably wouldn’t have come to the end that he did.

Finally, another whole twist is put on the story by a sort of epilogue where the Easterner confirms that Johnnie was cheating and suggests to the cowboy that they all hold a certain level of responsibility for the fate of the Swede.

A part of me would like the blue hotel building to be symbolic of the world in general, but then the Swede leaves and moves the action to a different location. To carry this analogy along, Patrick Scully would need to be God, and the bar some sort of purgatory where the Swede receives his final judgment. Perhaps that does work!

There is a message that we are all pretty normal inside despite outward appearances. The hotel is painted a garish blue to make it stand out and attract customers, but then it is clearly quite a normal establishment once we see inside. Is this also a message about the true character of the Swede?

Clearly, that things are not what they appear to be is a strong theme. The gambler at the bar is more than a professional gambler, but also a family man and frequent participant in the local group of men who simply pass the time in discussing various topics of interest. Yet, he turns out to be the one who deals with the Swede in an unexpected way.

In any case, The Blue Hotel will give you plenty to think about.

Author info: Stephen Crane 1871-1900. Crane lived a short life, yet is recognized as one of the master American story tellers. Early on, he used themes from the naturalist school (we are victims of our environment), but later shifted to themes where people had more control over their own destiny. He was the son of a Methodist minister, and although he was gifted, never did well in school. He lived in extreme poverty most of his adult life, insisting that he pay his own way through writing. Even though Red Badge of Courage was acclaimed in his lifetime, he was never able to earn enough to raise his standard of living. He traveled through the American West as a syndicated journalist, and also traveled to Europe. He contracted tuberculosis, then malaria. He took such poor care of himself, that he died at age 28.

Unusual Words:
gripsack- a suitcase
sled-stake- a piece of wood which can be inserted in a sled frame to hold side boards- easily removeable, often used as a weapon, and necessarily straight.

Language skills 9
Depth of meaning 9