Friday, August 26, 2011
Once Upon a Decade: Tales of the Fifties by Clark Zlotchew
A man with a tortured psyche keeps a pink teddy bear on his food tray as he watches the Olympics on television. A waitress in New Jersey puts a curse on a sailor; his behavior becomes increasingly irrational. Two shipmates learn firsthand about segregation in 1950s Savannah. A timid adolescent suffers the pangs of unrequited love. A sailor who wants no more complications in his life falls in love with a young prostitute in Cuba on the eve of the Castro Revolution. An academic meets Jorge Luis Borges and uncovers the mystery of an American writer with three different names.
The seventeen narratives of this collection deal with love and death, triumphs and defeats, adolescent angst and the tension between ethnicity and assimilation against the background of the 1950s. Some present adventure on the high seas as well as a glimpse of Havana night life on the eve of the Castro Revolution.
The narratives in this collection paint a picture of the 1950s. Many of the elements of this culture will repel: racism, sexism and homophobia, for example. Yet this was an era in which neither the threat of terrorism nor the scourge of AIDS existed for the average American.
Story collections are always interesting to read, they are not always done well but when they are, it creates a great effect. This is one of those that work really well.
The 50s are represented here in more ways than one, although Mr. Zlotchew seems to focus a lot on the controversial aspects of that time period. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t consider this a fault, on the contrary, I think he manages to convey the grittiness without overdoing it and without boring the reader.
The collection begins with a story that involves a little magic, the only one that has a bit of supernatural quality to it. It is handled well and it leaves the reader wondering just what happened to Andreotti, one of the main characters. A standout tale is “Storm Warning”, it shows the permeating racist atmosphere in the era, but it is not shoved in the reader’s throat. The story begins to turn dark slowly, reaching a climax of violence, then calming once again. It’s a great example of the little jewels that form this collection.
The writing is impeccable, the pacing taut. There are some very witty dialogues and scenes that capture your attention and won’t let you go. This is a book that will linger in the reader’s mind with its beauty and its darkness. I can easily recommend this to anyone.