From time to time I will write about the short novel or novella. Over the last 100 years, American authors have written some of the finest novellas in any language. For authors like William Styron and Carson McCullers, their novellas, The Long March and The Ballad of the Sad Café respectively, are the best things they wrote. (Other great novellas I’ll likely write about in the future include Henry James’ Daisy Miller and The Turn of the Screw, Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus, Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day, Brian Moore’s Catholics, and Cynthia Ozick’s incredible The Shawl.)
Carson McCuller’s The Ballad of the Sad Café has often been called an example of “Southern Gothic,” which Tennessee Williams described as a style that captured “an intuition, of an underlying dreadfulness in modern experience.” For me, the presence of “grotesque” characters is about all this great novella has in common with Gothic literature, which generally combines elements of horror and romance.
The grotesques in question are Miss Amelia, a tall, lanky and masculine woman with crossed eyes, and her possible distant relation, the hunchback Lymon Willis, who could be twenty or fifty — no one can tell. This is their unlikely love story. Miss Amelia, a hard-bitten and misanthropic spinster who long ago had a disastrous and unconsumated 10-day marriage, is now the wealthiest woman in town, dispensing liquor from her own still from the back porch of her store. One day a ragged, dusty hunchback arrives and declares that he is her distant cousin. Quite unaccountably, as far as the townsfolk are concerned, she immediately demonstrates a tender and compassionate affection for this strange creature.
For Miss Amelia loved Cousin Lymon. So much was clear to everyone. They lived in the same house together and were never seen apart. Therefore, according to Mrs. MacPhail, a warty-nosed old busybody who is continually moving her sticks of furniture from one part of the front room to another; according to her and to certain others, these two were living in sin. If they were related, they were only a cross between first and second cousins, and even that could in no way be proved. Now, of course Miss Amelia was a powerful blunderbuss of a person more than six feet tall — and Cousin Lymon a weakly little hunchback reaching only to her waist. But so much for the better for Mrs. Stumpy MacPhail and her cronies, for they and their kind glory in conjunctions which are ill-matched and pitiful. So let them be. The good people thought that if those two had found some satisfaction of the flesh between themselves, then it was a matter concerning them and God alone. All sensible people agreed in their opinion about this conjecture — and their answer was a plain, flat no.
Previously strict, taciturn, and inhospitable, Miss Amelia, in her infatuation, develops an expansiveness that results in the transformation of her spare store into a comfortable café that brings the lonely residents of the town together every night.
Her love changes the town — at least until the return of Marvin Macy, Miss Amelia’s banished former husband, who has just been released from the penitentiary. To Miss Amelia’s dismay, Cousin Lymon develops his own infatuation for Marvin Macy. This heartbreaking betrayal eventually leads to a physical showdown between Miss Amelia and Marvin Macy, with devastating consequences for her and the entire town.
As I said, this is a love story. Its power lies in the fact that the main characters’ grotesqueness somehow intensifies the poignancy of their suffering, rather than distracting us from it.
The novella is often published as The Ballad of the Sad Café and Other Stories, and includes six perfect stories that you’ll enjoy as much as the novella. My favorites are “Madame Zilensky and the King of Finland,” a story about a pathological liar that calls everyday reality into question, and “Wunderkind,” which depicts the sad disintegration of a piano prodigy’s ability to “make music” as opposed to simply playing all the notes.
Other recommended works: The Member of the Wedding, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, and Reflections in a Golden Eye.
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