By Evan S. Connell
“Lion” was a revelation when an early version appeared in 1995’s The Collected Stories of Evan S. Connell—and it was an unlikely departure from a writer who’s made a career of surprising his readers. A mountain lion stalks a pregnant cow uphill to slaughter, observed by a terrified young woman alone in a cabin who feels both helpless and indignant at the animal’s fate, but who, pregnant herself and equally defenseless, can’t intervene. The form of the story, a long, uninterrupted paragraph, was new to Connell, and though prior to “Lion” he had written well of young women far from home—as in the early “Mademoiselle from Kansas City” and “I Came from Yonder Mountain”—he had not crafted a narrative quite so relentless in its action, or one that so unflinchingly captured the unapologetic savagery of the non-human world:
Overhead two red-tailed hawks slanted with the current. Perhaps they could see the cow and the lion. If so, what did the spectacle mean to them? Or were they, like the chipmunk, indifferent? She could not understand why she felt as she did, why she felt some responsibility toward the pattern of life; surely this must be the utmost conceit, yet she could not feel otherwise. She stood uncertainly at the window, listening and watching. The chipmunk had disappeared. The hawks were gone. There was not a sound. She wanted to scream against the emptiness, the terrifying silence.
Connell’s original version of “Lion” ended with a distant bellow from the mountain. In the new version, Katia herself wants to scream. The mountain’s violence has infected her, drawn blood. Katia, disgusted, craves a “return to the city … where it was possible to discuss poetry or attend fashion shows and concerts of classical music, where the values of the Mountain could be denied.”
Katia’s story rightly leads off the new selected volume, Lost in Uttar Pradesh. If she had the opportunity to read the balance of Evan Connell’s work, she might think twice about her longing for the placid city and its familiar mores.
In Mrs. Bridge, a classic of American literature that Evan Connell wrote in his thirties, eponymous India Bridge is both a sympathetic victim of society and an appallingly narrow-minded old ninny—often in the same breath. Early in the novel, India’s daughter Carolyn makes a new friend: “Alice Jones, the daughter of the colored gardener who worked next door.” Connell draws an attractive picture of the young friendship—the feisty Alice egging Carolyn into adventures—and so charmed is the reader by the fun the kids are having that we are almost surprised when India Bridge’s disapproval is wrenchingly conveyed. “Soon, she knew, the girls would drift apart. Time would take care of the situation.”
|Time does not remedy Alice and Carolyn’s friendship swiftly enough, however, and Mrs. Bridge is left with no choice but to take the matter in hand. Alice, who has grown accustomed to running straight from the backyard to the kitchen through the Bridges’ back screen door, bounds up the steps one morning to find it locked. “I believe you’re supposed to have lunch with your Daddy, aren’t you?” India asks, not innocently. Through the push of a latch, Mrs. Bridge has set the young girl in her place.We’re not appraised of the subtle violence India’s gesture inflicts on Carolyn (the cannier Alice catches on instantly) until the novel’s close. Carolyn, now grown and married, complains to her mother about how difficult it is to find a new house at a reasonable price. Mrs. Bridge suggests that there must be plenty of places in Parallel:|
“Oh, there are, there are,” Carolyn mumbled, “but you’ve got to check the neighbors.”
“I don’t understand what you mean.”
“The niggers are moving in.”
India Bridge was raised to cling to a mast of gentility, and even she is made somewhat uncomfortable by Carolyn’s epithet:
Mrs. Bridge slowly put down the tray of cookies. She did not know just what to say. Such situations were awkward. On the one hand, she herself would not care to live next door to a houseful of Negroes; on the other hand, there was no reason not to. She had always liked the colored people she had known …
Mrs. Bridge is savage as a lion in her way, though possessed of the oddly muffled self-awareness common to her set. “She’s almost as tall as Douglas and she looked so black,” she says of Carolyn’s old childhood friend, “It’s such a shame.” The triumph of Connell’s Mrs. Bridge is that the writer succeeds in making even bigoted old India sympathetic. She, too, is a victim, albeit of silence and repression. The lion is probably more self-aware.
This quiet, civilized violence is still a part of Connell’s work. We encounter it again in “Nan Madol,” the third story in the New and Selected, and in a nearly identical fashion. Unlike India Bridge, Uncle Gates provides few prior indications of his bigotry. He is a world traveler, a scholar, and a sophisticate. Yet he reveals himself at the story’s end to be capable of vile sentiment.
|In “Assassin,” the shortest of the new stories here, ex-Army assassin Harlin holds a dinner party for his neighbors, two of whom are openly gay. Koerner, the reader’s eyes and ears, is shocked that Harlin, who has invited gay couples to his dinners for years and displayed nothing but courtesy when they were present, should only now reveal himself to be homophobic (the departed guests are “fairies” who make Harlin “want to puke”). Looking into the ex-assassin’s eyes, Koerner is surprised to discover fear. Koerner is frustrated; clearly part of this man’s life is a lie, but which part? There is nothing for Koerner to do, he discovers, with Harlin’s fear, no question that will detect its source, no life experience that will make it right; all Koerner can do is wait for time to pass and the air to cool.|
That Harlin was a soldier is significant. Three of Connell’s seven novels take place in times of war, and his masterwork of history, Son of the Morning Star, begins and ends at Little Big Horn.
A writer obsessed with violence, Connell is equally obsessed with obsession. Muhlbach, hero of two of Connell’s novels as well as a novel’s worth of stories, is taken over, mind and body, by a passion for Olmec figurines in The Connossieur. The narrator of The Diary of a Rapist is obsessed—predictably but, in Connell’s hands, brilliantly—with various accounts of violence against women. Tessie, in “Noah’s Ark,” is obsessed with the second coming. On the evidence of his historical essays, Connell himself is obsessed by questers, implausible adventure, ineffable exoticism, the mystery that walks away.
“I am riddled with wonder,” confesses the wizened narrator of the Selected’s “Ancient Musick”:
Should it be that the earth is a Moon, as Burton saith,
then are we giddy, vertiginous, and lunatick
amid our sublunary maze. As to myself,
night upon night with Homer beneath my pillow
I slip across the universe like Alexander
seeking distant worlds.
Vagabonds sift the beaches of Mare Rubrim
searching for jewels cast up by the sea.
Suppose I go there, what awaits me?
The allure of this pregnant, unpunctured mystery takes the shape, for William Koerner, of exotic women. He reluctantly introduces Uncle Gates to his friend Rachel, whose “features always reminded [him] of Nefertiti—sleek, balanced, imperious.” In another tale, “Hooker,” he re-encounters a mysterious woman with whom he’d shared—of all things—mysteries:
She had been to Mexico. She had visited Campeche, where he lived for six months. She knew about the hawks sailing along the sea wall with their white legs pressed together and how the Gulf lay flat as a slice of blueberry pie. The Mexicans built that wall to keep out pirates and Englishman, he had said, and she laughed. They talked about the smell of gasoline after a fishing boat chugged by, and the terrible restaurant on the beach with fans nailed to the pink plastered wall and a mosaic tile floor and the TV set perched on top of a broken refrigerator. She remembered palm trees struggling against the afternoon breeze, and truck fumes and yellow-and-blue stucco houses and idiotic crowing roosters and flowers and tin shacks and jars of Nescafé and painted wheelbarrows and a troop of Catholic schoolgirls with gold-capped teeth. She had seen the Mayan ruins at Palenque, so they talked about that—lime-streaked glyphs, the unexpected drip of water from stalactites in gloomy passageways, mosquitoes, warm rain showers, orange and black lichen scaling the mottled white temples. He felt astonished that they had gone to the same places and had experienced them in the same way, and it had seemed to him that night in Taos while they drank Mexican beer and talked about Campeche and mysterious temples in the jungle that their separate travels must have brought them together for a purpose.
In his two landmark collections of historical essays, A Long Desire and The White Lantern, Connell explores the myths of Atlantis, the legend of Pastor John, Coronado’s seven golden cities, the redoubtable Mary Kingsleys and Isabella Bird Bishops of 19th century exploration, the history of alchemy, the search for the Northwest Passage, and we have not even exhausted the first volume. All writers are obsessive—they have to be, in a world that treats them as it does—but Connell is special case. He perpetually revisits old stories and characters (Bowen, the Bemises, Uncle Gates, J.D., William Koerner, and the aforementioned Muhlbach all appear in more than one of the stories in the new Selected, often stories written decades apart). He is fascinated by incunabula and he takes close, sometimes claustrophobic care in describing them. Uncle Gates’ voice may as well be Connell’s own, quizzing Koerner’s girlfriend in “Nan Madol”:
Let me ask you a riddle, he said. If many things seem beautiful to us, what is more beautiful than any of these?
Tell me, she said.
More beautiful than any of these, Rachel, is what we have learned. Yet what can be more beautiful than what we have learned?
Tell me, she said again.
That which we do not comprehend.
Another soul’s obsession can be weirdly illegible … much as we may desire to understand it, we can’t make the shapes come into focus. Such is the case of Tessie’s employer, Mrs. Stocking, in “Noah’s Ark.” Mrs. Stocking tries and tries to educate Tessie on the allegorical, historical, metaphorical significance of Christian scripture, but Tessie insists on the literal word. Cusses, to her, are real devils crawling filthily from a sinner’s mouth. Gog and Magog stand ready to wipe out the world. Televangelists speak sooth.
Quite a number of Connell’s characters are ensorcelled by mysteries which remain out of reach. Such a seeker is the bartender in “Fisherman from Chihuahua,” a haunting story which should have been included in Pradesh. The story’s bartender can’t figure out why one of his patrons sings so tragically, and he never will find out. Likewise J.D. from “The Walls of Ávila,” another early story, spends his youth traveling the world in search of an exoticism that, once attained, will … will what? scrub him free of the American Midwest? put an end to his longing?
Early stories like “The Walls of Ávila” and “The Fisherman from Chihuahua” are about as sharp as they come. Gem-edged, they wryly reveal themselves through a steadiness of tone once popular in the 50′s (and again, to some extent, in the 80′s, when they inspired Tobias Wolfe and Raymond Carver to write their own best work); they do not read as though they are beholden to any particular zeitgeist, though they inevitably are; they sacrifice their constituent parts to the whole while still designing to show off plenty. Lost in Uttar Pradesh has its share of these stories: “Lion,” “Arcturus,” “Bowen,” “Yellow Raft,” “The Palace of the Moorish Kings.” They are my favorite of Connell’s stories and its a pleasure to see them reprinted here.
There is a strain in Connell’s more recent fiction, however, where both the language and the structure of the stories seem more aggressive; the element of mystery is almost wholly absent and the characters are defined by their political opinions. You might call them “message” stories as opposed to “craft” stories. Lost in Uttar Pradesh is a collection of both, but the message stories especially stick-out because no one writes stories like that now, if they ever did. They are not essayistic or propagandist exactly, but their effect can seem polemical and that’s probably deliberate.
Proctor Bemis, a wealthy burgher, denounces underhanded conservative politics at an election-eve cocktail party where (and this is a nice touch) the guests in attendance dress as former presidents. As Bemis mingles, he encounters a boorish old Republican:
Howie was explaining that America could have won the war if it hadn’t been for draft dodgers and the liberal media. And while Mr. Bemis listened to Howie justify Vietnam he remembered the ugliness. Even now, after all this time, it festered like the Nixon pardon, provoking arguments, refusing to heal. The flesh of the nation was raw. The photograph of that naked child seared by napalm running toward the camera screaming in agony, that image would not fade. And he reflected that he had frequently touted E. I. Du Pont, which manufactured napalm. Du Pont, as everyone knew, was a substantial corporation with good earnings, a secure dividend, and offered the likelihood of capital appreciation. A dollar invested with Du Pont was a dollar prudently invested.
It’s not that this isn’t a well-written or urgent or accurate paragraph—it is all of these. And it is not as though Connell has not written great political work in the past (Points for a Compass Rose is on fire with hatred for the Vietnam War, and it reads like fire). It is that every Selected volume offers an implicit critique of its Collected and in this case the overtly political stories bring out heretofore unnoticed political aspects of the early stories, upsetting their balance. Connell has always been a writer interested in the current of events, but in this collection that interest lurches center-forward. “Noah’s Ark” becomes a story about the religious right, “Arcturus” becomes about the vanishing middle class. As in David Hare’s “Stuff Happens,” the sentiments of the Bemis stories, no matter how artfully framed, are too indistinguishable from our own private thoughts to strike us unexpectedly or with any force. In forty years, they’ll likely be more readable and relevant than most zeitgeist fiction; now, collected together, they do not resonate as much as I would like them to.
As I noted above, I tend to lean toward the “craft” stories (why are there no Leon and Bébert stories in Lost in Uttar Pradesh? I worry they were omitted because they’re merely delightful and not sufficiently “relevant” to the current moment … “Suicide” would have been the perfect tonic), but Lost in Uttar Pradesh is obviously stalking different game. Every American should have Evan Connell’s Collected Stories on their shelf, but for those who may find that volume too unwieldy or out of print to suit their convenience, they can be assured that Counterpoint has done a handsome job with this New and Selected (a fine, stout little thing), and that Lost in Uttar Pradesh contains some wondrous stories, all of which come from the pen of a man who has traveled strange lands, one who—with sad confidence—can claim to have:
John Cotter is a founding editor at Open Letters. His first novel, Under the Small Lights, will be published by Miami University Press in 2010.