Introduction: An Amazing Variety
Whether you follow the page order or skip back and forth, smart & dear reader, this book will amaze you by the variety of what it offers. The title calls them all stories, but this is somewhat misleading. Stories they are, of course, but they vary in length from flash fiction to novellas; you will find a one-act comedy mixed in, featuring Thomas Jefferson and his marihuana plantation ("Marijuana at Monticello"), and a specter of genres from fairy tales for children ("The Golden Squirrel") to the most cynical noir. In between, there are action-packed thrillers like "Haydn's Head," with double-crossing spies, copious guns, and devastating uppercuts. As for locale, these narrations will take you from North Carolina Outer Banks to Polynesia and points in between, with sorrowful or merry stays in New York Greenwich Village. A character, Jimmy Whistler, appears in several stories set in the Village, and this recurrence of actor and locale is a skillful esthetic counterpoise to this amazing variety of riches.
From Schorb's bio in his web page we learn that he attended NYU, probably in the early sixties, when I, too, was studying for a PhD at the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences. On Sundays, from my window at the NYU graduate dorm (Judson Hall), I could watch and listen to the wonderful jazz improvisational playing on Washington Square, while, who knows, Schorb might have been there too, together with his actor friends. Did he go to the Five Spot Café on St. Marks Place, near W. H. Auden's apartment, and listened to Thelonius Monk? In one of his Jimmy Whistler stories, "The Sandal Shop," we are taken back to the East Village in those glorious times. There, Jimmy meets his first beatnik, a character oddly named Marsayas—perhaps intended as a combination of several musician names: the unfortunate Marsyas, who challenged Apollo to a contest, either with a double flute or with a lyre, and ended up being skinned alive by the god as a reward, and of the renowned musical family Marsalis, virtuosos of many instruments. Whatever the case may be, Marsayas complained that he could not live with his family. "Impossible!", he said, his whole family were "convention-racked lunatics," or "business fiends" or "materialist maniacs." Marsayas, instead: "I'm a Zoroastrian. I believe in the power of light to conquer the forces of darkness. I believe in universal love." That's the first beatnik I know of who did not claim to be a Buddhist of some sort. A Zoroastrian! Those were truly the new, hip Sixties: something unexpected and far out at every turn.
Schorb has an ear for the manifold accents of American speech, and that adds significantly to the amazing variety of this book. From the slangy speech of the car salesman in "The Hat Trick" to the refined, elliptic staccato of "Snowbound," the artist who went in search of a vision and is dying of cold: "He feared nothing but the thought of no vision, not the loss of his wife to another, nor the loss of his life, nor the meaning of loneliness, but for the vision forsaking all." And let's not forget the hippie slang of "The Code of the Blue Commune," where one of the young male members of the free sex, peace and love commune, Mooncalf, addresses the detective, Marshal McCool, "Look, fuzz, I had nothing to do with this thing," and the whole thing promptly becomes as vicious and violent as anything by the Coen brothers.
To understand one of the masterpieces in this book, "Murphy's Star," it is useful to recall that Schorb, again according to his bio in the web, has been an actor and has long been involved with the film industry. It is the description of a despicable personality, Murphy the actor, a super-charged Narcissus, transfixed by his own star. It makes you think of other narcissistic, selfish, or Don Juan types in the market, from Don Juan himself to Henry Crawford of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park. And you realize that no Narcissus of previous times could possibly measure up to Schorb's Murphy, for there was no Hollywood back then and no TV, which have increased the audience size, hence the capacity for narcissism, more than a thousand fold. One must say, though, that independently of his acting past and his film experience, Schorb has a special touch, almost Dickensian, for depicting egoism in enduring ways and unforgettably despicable characters. Aunt Gertrude in "Movie Money" is one of them. She is Jimmy's aunt, the owner of the rooming house where the boy Jimmy and his mother are staying. But is this boy Jimmy Whistler, or some namesake? We are not told; the rooming house, however, is not in the Village but in Newark. Aunt Gertrude is a miser with mafia connections, who keeps Jimmy and his mother in thrall by the promise, not always kept, of giving them money for the movies on Fridays. Newark, however, is, for Jimmy, a sort of vile annex of the Village, as we surmise when we read "Candy Butcher," another Jimmy story, where people go to see "burlesque" — "to see at the Adams Theatre in Newark what Mayor La Guardia had banned from New York." What can I say? He didn't deserve an airport.
When I was fifteen, I saw my my first and last burlesque at the Teatro Babilonia in Buenos Aires Retiro Park. The audience were mostly old gizzards, plus me and three of my high-school buddies: today, none of us has forgotten the vedette, Sombra Duval (a name suggesting shade of the valley, or shaded valley), who, having done her bump-and-grind, twirled the tassels on her pasties, and snapped her G-string (as Schorb describes), having furthermore sung her salacious song, imbecile but indelible, proceeded to strut off in her spike-heels, proudly showing us, while the old gizzards roared in heat, her naked shady valley. It was for us an important detail of what Flaubert sarcastically called the sentimental education.
Back to Schorb's depictions of egoism. Aunt Gertrude with her dog Wiggles ("a very old bitch with tumorous, pendulous breasts"), memorable as they are, do not achieve the artistry of what is perhaps my favorite story in this book, "A Practical Nurse." Lorna Chandler, a young woman who plays the practical nurse, and Cora Freemantle, a rich, older woman, are the two characters. The older woman is in bed, unable to walk; her dog Suzy Wong is the only living thing she cares for: this fact, and the others pertaining to the older woman's repulsive personality, are revealed in the dialogue, through expressive phrases and tones of voice. Thus the means of achieving the desired effect are as spare as they are effective.
The initial story, "Charlie . . . for the Lord," shows Schorb painting a very different character, an orphan from the South, good hearted and naïve to the point that his co-workers, the other young salesmen, consider him a jerk and a dumb turkey. Fairmore, eighteen years old, has a soul too fair for this world, and so he cannot last. Yet his death has a wakening effect on his boss, the Manager, a cigar-chomping veteran of WWII who believes himself to be a no-nonsense, hardened businessman. The Manager's unlikely redemption is a rare instance of a Schorb story ending on an uplifting mode. By contrast, look at the final story, "The Devil's Tavern," a future dystopia worthy of Jonathan Swift or H. G. Wells, in which an all-powerful Ministry of Wellness controls the lives of the people to the smallest detail. I'm not complaining. There are too many final-redemption stories in the market today, which is a cause for a demoralizing depression. That's something you, sharp reader, will not experience in reading this book.
—Ricardo L. Nirenberg, Editor
OffCourse Literary Journal