The International Writers Magazine: Reviving the work of Irwin
Decades by Irwin Shaw
Published by University of Chicago Press
A Dan Schneider review
was a young boy when Rich Man, Poor Man became the first
big miniseries that dominated network television in the mid-1970s,
and it was that work, and book, written by Irwin Shaw (né
Irwin Gilbert Shamforoff, February 27, 1913-May 16, 1984), that
set off the miniseries craze of adapting popular works of fiction
and nonfiction that dominated television for another decade, not
Alex Haleys Roots, as is popularly misperceived.
As such, Irwin
Shaws name became synonymous with other popular mega-selling
writers of that time- like John Jakes, Jeffrey Archer, and Jackie Susann,
as a schlock writer of soap operatic potboilers. In this way, his literary
career followed almost the same career trajectory as that of John OHara-
a once respected social realist writer who became a lauded
literary icon who then sold out, and had the audacity to
garner popular success along with his critical success, which evaporated
in proportion to his ability to live affluently until he died on his
Davos, Switzerland estate. How dare a writer be rewarded financially
for his artistic excellence! These were the days, of course, before
the gravy trains of National Endowments for the Arts grants, and their
requisites that good artists remain untainted by popular
and financial success, and merely leech off the taxpayer with PC screeds,
ridiculously mind-numbing work that scorns the reader, or puerile art
merely intended to shock.
in reading Irwin Shaws Five Decades, a huge book of
sixty-three of his best tales, in 756 pages of small type, written
between the Great Depression years and his death, the only thing
that an impartial reader can come away with is Shaws consistent
excellence in the field. Although having gotten his start, and made
his name in the pages of The New Yorker magazine, I can tell
you his tales hold up better socially and artistically than far
more lauded New Yorker writers like OHara, J.D. Salinger,
John Cheever, Alice Adams, John Updike, or Ann Beattie.
The earliest tales,
especially, with only the omission of a few definitive words that reference
their era, could have been written yesterday, and are almost as minimalist
as they are realist. And there is little fat in Shaws tales- they
are lean with the rat-a-tat-tat staccato of their sentences construction,
and their poetry comes not from a strained contrivance of clichés,
but the juxtaposition (often jarring) of the most common of things,
phrases, and moments. Even though most of the stories, especially the
early ones, are set in a New York City milieu, and reflect the accents
and slang thereof, Shaw powerfully captures the realistic dialogue of
the masses like few other writers ever have- perhaps, of published short
story writers Ive read, only Russias Anton Chekhov comes
close, and even he tended to lean a bit more on allegory rather than
the offhanded poesy that comes in real spoken dialogue, and can best
be pared down by the good ear of a good writer. Not even Eugene ONeill,
at his best, could capture the American idiom as well, and perhaps only
Clifford Odets did- and its worth noting Shaw started out as a
In just doing a
little background research on Shaw it was heartening to see that his
staggeringly great run of tales was actually recognized (a rarity these
days) with a much deserved O. Henry Award, for Walking Wounded
(1944), a tale about a British soldier, named Peter, who, after a couple
of years at the front, cannot remember his wifes appearance, cannot
find his commanding officer, and without leave orders cannot go home.
An intriguing premise, and that good tale isnt even in the Top
25 best tales in this volume. Among the other great tales that riddle
this book are The Eighty Yard Run- Shaw wrote quite a few excellent
sports tales, Borough Of Cemeteries, Sailor Off The Bremen, The Girls
In Their Summer Dresses, Second Mortgage, and many others. Even
just looking at many of their titles grabs a readers interest
right away: I Stand By Dempsey, God On Friday Night, No Jury Would
Convict, Stop Pushing, Rocky, Night, Birth And Opinion, The Indian In
Depth Of Night, Goldilocks At Graveside, The Climate Of Insomnia, The
Sunny Banks Of The River Lethe, Whispers In Bedlam, and Where
All Things Fair And Wise Descend, along with some of the aforementioned
titles. Has any published writer ever written tales with more provocative
yet poetic titles? And the substance of the tales do the titles justice.
The lean prose and great dialogue never brocade into sententious didacticism,
and are distillations of the sorts of moments we all recall. There is
no drippy nor dippy sentimentality, but tons of raw emotion. Some of
the tales are harrowing, and wear a reader out, but in the good emotional
way, not the eye-blearying way that much of the ponderous prose of the
Victorian era did. Yes, as a working class immigrant Jew, himself, Shaws
early tales have a preponderance of these characters, but Shaw is not
as prone to mythologizing the dull minutia of Jewish life as Isaac Bashevis
Singer was. Instead, he is after the American pug, the American mook,
the American man in his purest 20th Century form - be it deranged cabbies,
lowlife criminals, professional athletes, unrepentant skirtchasers,
or effete elitists. His tales are perhaps the most character driven
tales published in the last century. Almost ever story has at least
one memorable character, and usually more than one. Plot is never primary,
although he is very adept at molding it to the natural consequences
of his characters circumstances, outlooks, and actions, especially
in dealing realistically with the ethical consequences of his characters
actions. Part of this stems from the fact that Shaw came of age as a
writer during the nadir of the 20th Century- the Great Depression and
World War Two, where paranoia, struggle, and a need for vigilance seemed
neverending, due to the vagaries that define real life.
In March On, March On Down The Field, the tale follows
a pro football team with a miserly owner, who cuts his players
pay when they do not sell out games, and even tries to save money by
not giving them helmets. Still, he expects them to play hard. In
Small Saturday a man meets the girl who will become his wife only
after both of them have missed out on a chance to meet others, and a
bevy of other minor incidents that have shaped their future. Act
Of Faith deals with Anti-Semitism and power during World War Two.
In Second Mortgage a poor Brooklyn family cannot pay their own
bills and are literally penniless. Yet, they get weekly visits from
an elderly widow who holds the second mortgage on the property. She
sits for hours in their living room, almost trying to will them to have
money to give to her. The rest of the tale follows the familys
turn from sympathy toward her to dread to not even bothering to answer
their doorbell when she rings. The Man Who Married A French Wife
follows a couple on a trip to France, just after the Algerian rebellion,
and the husband's jealousy over his thinking his wife is involved with
a man he sees on the street. God Was Here But He Left Early follows
a woman in Paris who tries to have a one night stand, but instead, picks
up a spanking fetishist. Another story that is remarkable is The
Indian In Depth Of Night, wherein a man encounters an odd character
in Central Park, who claims to be an Indian, who veers between wanting
to mug him and act like a child. In Noises In The City a mans
love and appreciation for his pregnant wife is reborn after he meets
another man whose wife was murdered. I Stand By Dempsey follows
sports fans arguing over who is the better fighter, ex-Heavyweight Champion
Jack Dempsey, or then-current champion Joe Louis. The conversation is
so real that one needs no descriptions of place nor person, it could
just stand alone and have its dialogue be read as a radio play. Tip
On A Dead Jockey follows an American in Paris who meets a stranger
at the races, who gives him tips on horses, then offers him a chance
to score big doing something illegal. Whispers In Bedlam follows
the fluke lucky street of a mediocre pro football player who is losing
his hearing, has an operation to fix it, and becomes a great player,
only to have his hearing hurt again, and slide back down to anonymity
as an insurance salesman. Along the way this tour de force deals with
infidelity, impotence, the Vietnam War, and gambling addiction. The
Inhabitants Of Venus follows a Jew who sees a German at a ski resort
and believes its the man who left him to die as a child. He ponders
vengeance until he sees the circumstances of the German.
The Climate Of Insomnia is a terrific portrait of a mind crumbling
due to lack of sleep. The Sunny Banks Of The River Lethe goes
even further, detailing in its first half the exactitude of a character
with an incredible memory, only to, in its latter half, detail the effects
of senility, decades before Alzheimers Disease became a concern,
or even got its name. The tale is especially effective, as it ends with
the character wholly forgetting his life, starting with his wife:
He awoke early, conscious that it was a sunny day outside. He lay
in bed feeling warm and healthy. There was a noise from the next bed,
and he looked across the little space. There was a woman in the next
bed. She was middle-aged and wearing curlers and she was snoring and
Hugh was certain he had never seen her before in his life. He got out
of bed silently, dressed quickly, and went out into the sunny day.
Without thinking about it, he walked to the subway station. He
watched the people hurrying toward the trains and he knew that he probably
should join them. He had the feeling that somewhere in the city to the
south, in some tall building on a narrow street, his arrival was expected.
But he knew that no matter how hard he tried he would never be able
to find the building. Buildings these days, it occurred to him suddenly,
were too much like other buildings.
He walked briskly away from the subway station in the direction
of the river. The river was shining in the sun and there was ice along
the banks. A boy of about twelve, in a plaid mackinaw and a wool hat,
was sitting on a bench and regarding the river. there were some schoolbooks,
tied with a leather strap, on the frozen ground at his feet.
Hugh sat down next to the boy. Good morning, he said
Good morning, said the boy.
Whatre you doing? Hugh asked.
Im counting the boats, the boy said. Yesterday
I counted thirty-two boats. Not counting ferries. I dont count
Hugh nodded. He put his hands in his pockets and looked down
over the river. By five oclock that afternoon he and the boy had
counted forty-three boats, not including ferries. He couldnt remember
having had a nicer day.
Now, imagine such a scene, of a character with Alzheimers, being
published today, in a PC drenched disease of the month tale.
How many clichés, how many sentimental images, how many bathetic
platitudes would occupy the same space that this crisp, lean set of
words does? Look how such a seemingly inert sentence like, He
couldnt remember having had a nicer day, rises far above
its naked statement merely by its placement at the end of this series
of events. Thats the sort of magic only a great writer
can impart to a reader.
Stop Pushing, Rocky, follows a good, solid palooka fighter named
Joey who has agreed to carry a bum named Rocky for ten rounds, in order
to satisfy mobsters who bet on him (as well as betting against himself),
then nearly blowing it when the tomato can really thinks he can win
and starts whaling on him. The not too bright boxer faces the dilemma
of choosing between his life and his pride in accepting a beating from
the bum even though he knows hell win, but look bad in doing so
- with even the referee suspecting a fix. It is simply one of the greatest
boxing stories ever penned, and after making it through a round where
he nearly accidentally KOd Rocky, three rounds shy of the mobsters
demands, he has to explain to his trainer how he had to restrain himself
from hurting the lesser boxer: I didnt hit him
hard, Joey protested. It was strictly a medium punch. He
got a chin like a movie star. Like Myrna Loy. He shouldnt oughta
be in this business. He should wait on customers in a store. In a dairy.
Butter and eggs. Nothing poetic, nothing clichéd,
just pure realism emanates from Shaws pen. In one of his most
justifiably famed tales, The Girls In Their Summer Dresses, Michael
and Frances Loomis seem the typical married couple that has no future,
and should never have gotten together in the first place. They constantly
bicker over his, to her, annoying habit of ogling every pretty girl
he sees. Look at this excerpt of dialogue, and look how realistic and
eternal it is, then think of how many times you or someone you know
have either had this conversation, or heard others in the midst of having
it, at a restaurant, a party, or a family gathering: Sure,
he said. He took his eyes off the hatless girl with the dark hair, cut
dancer-style, like a helmet, who was walking past him with the self-conscious
strength and grace dancers have. She was walking without a coat and
she looked very solid and strong and her belly was flat, like a boys,
under her skirt, and her hips swung boldly because she was a dancer
and also because she knew Michael was looking at her. She smiled a little
to herself as she went past and Michael noticed all these things before
he looked back at his wife. Sure, he said, were
going to watch the Giants and were going to eat steak and were
going to see a French picture. How do you like that?
Thats it, Frances said flatly. Thats
the program for the day. Or maybe youd just rather walk up and
down Fifth Avenue.
You always look at other women, Frances said. At
every damn woman in the city of New York.
Oh, come now, Michael said, pretending to joke. Only
pretty ones. And, after all, how many pretty women are there in New
More. At least you seem to think so. Wherever you go.
Not the truth. Occasionally, maybe, I look at a woman as
she passes. In the street. I admit, perhaps in the street I look at
a woman once in a while....
Everywhere, Frances said. Every damned place
we go. Restaurants, subways, theaters, lectures, concerts.
Now, darling, Michael said. I look at everything.
God gave me eyes and I look at women and men and subway excavations
and moving pictures and the little flowers of the field. I casually
inspect the universe.
You ought to see the look in your eye, Frances said,
as you casually inspect the universe on Fifth Avenue.
Im a happily married man. Michael pressed her
elbow tenderly, knowing what he was doing. Example for the whole
twentieth century, Mr. and Mrs. Mike Loomis.
You mean it?
Are you really happily married?
Sure, Michael said, feeling the whole Sunday morning
sinking like lead inside him. Now what the hell is
the sense in talking like that?
I would like to know. Frances walked faster now,
looking straight ahead, her face showing nothing, which was the way
she always managed it when she was arguing or feeling bad.
Im wonderfully happily married, Michael said
patiently. I am the envy of all men between the ages of fifteen
and sixty in the state of New York. They continue to
bicker, as the tale proceeds, and glumly head toward a bar, where they
reach a détente, of sorts. Yet, the ending is not the expected
that a lesser writer would give you. There is no sudden making up between
them, nor is their unsettled bitterness.
Another of Shaws famed and great tales is Sailor Off The Bremen,
which deals with working class tensions right before the Second World
War, where a group of Communist-sympathizing longshoreman set up the
steward of a German ship for a beating, in retaliation for getting beaten
up by goons when they protested at a German Nazi vessels being
berthed. The tale is filled with brutality, but as relevant today, as
ever. Just switch the beaten German with a Moslem attacked after 9/11,
or during this latest war, and the tale rings as modern as it does clarion.
So does the eternal apathy of the authorities as the end
of this tale sums up:
Much later, in the hospital, Preminger stood over the bed in which Lueger
lay, unconscious, in splints and bandages.
Yes, he said to the detective and the doctor.
Thats our man. Lueger. A steward. The papers on him are
Who do you think done it? the detective asked in
a routine voice. Did he have any enemies?
Not that I know of, Preminger said. He was
a very popular boy. Especially with the ladies.
The detective started out of the ward. Well, he said,
he wont be a very popular boy when he gets out of here.
Preminger shook his head. You must be very careful in a
strange city, he said to the intern, and went back to the ship.
Preminger knows full well why the beating occurred and who did
it, and the detective either knows he knows and does not care, or does
not care to push the matter, having more important things to do. The
admonition by Preminger that ends the tale is very chilling in its matter
Yet, this sort of excellence is so frequent in Shaws tales that
a reader, too used to the garbage that has been published the last few
decades in major magazines and by major presses, might almost take its
almost routine excellence for granted. But, just reread the selections
quoted above, and I challenge any reader to find passages of comparable
length and overall quality- poetry, concision, realism, colloquialism-
in any of the works of PC Elitist writers like Maya Angelou, Jhumpa
Lahiri, Yann Martel, or Mary Gaitskill, or Post-Modern dreck like Rick
Moody, David Foster Wallace, Donald Barthelme, or Dave Eggers. In short,
there is more in the mere page or so of quotations than in the combined
career works of all the above named writers. That Irwin Shaw is not
recalled and more importantly hailed as a great writer, if only for
these masterpieces of short fiction, while the dregs named above are
well known, is a crime against literature, and yes, Irwin Shaw wrote
literature- high literature- in these great short stories.
The stories are so well-wrought with the trimness of necessity, and
possess a grit and realism that Ernest Hemingway could never equal,
even in the best of his hit and miss tales- and are just as poetic,
if not more, and certainly more consistently poetic, with the poetry
of concision in the construction, not the mere phrasing. Again, look
how inherently straightforward sentences like, He couldnt
remember having had a nicer day,, Michael watched
her walk, thinking, what a pretty girl, what nice legs,, and
You must be very careful in a strange city, seem,
yet how become poetic they become by their mere placement. Shaw does
this over and over again in these tales, which is a feat that writers
like John OHara, or J.D. Salinger, his contemporaries, at their
best, could never do with any consistency. Yes, some of his later tales
are too long, but never ungodly in length, and they never become as
airy as the lesser tales of many far more lauded writers in the Pantheon
do. I urge and reader who wants to be entertained or enlightened, and
also learn a good deal of what America in the last century was like,
to seek out the short stories of Irwin Shaw. Theres no better
place to start than with Five Decades to get the whole century.
© Dan Schneider,
www.Cosmoetica.com Feb 1st
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