Sunday, September 26, 2010

Molly Fox's Birthday

Can you ever really know someone? That's the question evoked by the novel MOLLY FOX'S BIRTHDAY. It is the latest from Irish writer, Deirdre Madden. This richly woven story is told from the point of view of an unnamed narrator, a young woman, a successful playwright, suffering a bout of writer's block. She is house-sitting for her long-time friend, Molly Fox, an equally successful actress, whose need for privacy shrouds her in layers of mystery.
The setting of the book is Ireland and the action takes place all on one day, the Summer Solstice (the longest day of the year), which is also Molly Fox's birthday.  Over the course of the story, the narrator inhabits Molly's house and wanders the rooms therein, reliving decades of their friendship via flashbacks. In the process, she conjures scenes of Molly Fox that inspire feelings of love, admiration, jealousy and even resentment. But who really is Molly Fox? This gently paced, beautifully written novel is about how we shape our identities and relationships - the relationship we have to ourselves, our family and friends, our passions and most significantly, our artistic inclinations.

Through the narrative flashback arc, each character in this novel seems a misfit, shaped by some sense of loss and trauma in their families that has encouraged him/her to turn to the arts. The narrator comes from a big, Irish, baby-making clan. It is her brother, a solitary Catholic priest, who helps her understand and appreciate how being different and living an unconventional/introspective life can be an asset and not a liability--especially for a writer. Molly spends her life, off-stage, trying to escape the lasting wounds of a largely absent mother and caring for an emotionally troubled brother. But it is a seemingly secondary character, Andrew, a documentary filmmaker and an old friend of both the narrator and Molly--a man who lost his brother, the favorite son of his family, to the Irish rebel cause--who figures most predominantly into the denouement of this deeply moving story. 

"Sometimes the most important and powerful element is an absence, a lack, a burnished space in your mind that glows and aches as you try to fill it," the narrator tell us.

The book seems to suggest that an artistic life--be it on the page, stage or screen--can be a bulwark against loneliness and feelings of emptiness.   In the end, the losses and empty spaces in life, and how one responds to them on an emotional level, are what come to define these very authentic, three-dimensional characters. A thought-provoking read!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Revisiting a Classic: O. HENRY

Yesterday was the birthday of short story writer, O. Henry, also known as William Sidney Porter. In my opinion, O. Henry is an undervalued writer, where many in high-brow literary circles downplay his genius and mastery of the short story form. This is odd (and ironic) because the O. Henry Prize, which lauds the "best" in short fiction each year, actually bestows the award on "literary" as opposed to "commercial" fiction - the type that O. Henry, himself, created. Go figure.

For me, O. Henry's writing is energetic and witty.  The elements of mystery and suspense in his stories greatly contribute to the twist endings that have become the hallmark of his work. Revisit his most famous tales like "The Gift of the Magi," "The Ransom of Red Chief," and "A Retrieved Reformation."

My personal favorite is, "The Cop and the Anthem," a story set in Manhattan. It is told from the point-of-view of a homeless man named "Soapy" who knows, while wandering the crisp, fall streets of New York City, that the chill of winter is fast approaching. Soapy is a lost soul, but he's industrious and clever. He sets out on a quest to get arrested, as a night in jail would certainly offer him the warmth and security he seeks. But Soapy's efforts keep falling short until he meets with an ironic twist of fate at the end of the story.

While O. Henry's work has entertained and inspired me, I find the story of his own life as compelling as his fiction. This was posted yesterday on The Writer's Almanac:

September 11: It's the birthday of short-story writer O. Henry, born William Sidney Porter in Greensboro, North Carolina, on this day in 1862 . . . He worked at his uncle's drugstore, becoming a licensed pharmacist when he was 19, and before he turned 20 he'd headed west to Texas, where he spent time on a ranch as a shepherd, domestic servant, and baby-sitter.

He moved to Austin, Texas, worked as a pharmacist, and played guitars on street corners around the city. He eloped with a tuberculosis-infected, rich and beautiful teenage girl whom he'd fallen in love with.

Later, he got a good-paying job as a bank teller so that he could support his wife and young daughter. But he was not a good bookkeeper, and he was fired for embezzlement. He took to writing full time.

The feds did an audit of the bank he'd been working at, and when they found a bunch of discrepancies, they decided to indict him on federal embezzlement charges. His wife's dad posted bail for him, but instead of sticking around for trial, O. Henry fled to New Orleans and then to Honduras, where he stayed for months. But when he found out that his beloved wife was on the verge of dying from her tuberculosis, he came back to Texas and turned himself in. Soon after, his wife died. He stood trial, was convicted of embezzlement, and was sent away to a federal penitentiary in Ohio.

He wrote short stories there, and he came up with the pseudonym O. Henry. Magazine editors were clueless that the stories they published were written by an inmate locked up in a federal penitentiary.

He got out of jail and wrote fast and furiously, about 400 short stories in those years following his release. He became famous, and an alcoholic, and he died less than a decade after getting out of jail, at the age of 47, from liver disease . . .

When asked what advice he would give to young writers, he said, "I'll give you the whole secret of short-story writing. Here it is. Rule I: Write stories that please yourself. There is no Rule II."

Happy Birthday, O!