Sunday, May 26, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 33: James Thurber, You Could Look It Up (#39)

James Thurber, "You Could Look It Up" (1941) from James Thurber: Writings and Drawings:

I sometimes find it easier to talk about works that I don't like so much, so today's remarks on Thurber's short story might be short.

As the headnote remarks, Ring Lardner was expert at this sort of sports story in semi-literate dialect. An aging baseball coach remembers the time the general manager of the ball club was so sickened by the team's fighting and losing streak that he hears a clownish midget named Pearl. It's kind of a longer story, so let's see the rough breakdown:

  • p553-4: the unhappiness of the team, the manager
  • p555-6: manager meets and hijacks midget Pearl
  • p557-8: manager and Pearl make fun of the team, with hints of a plan
  • p559: Pearl joins the ball club
  • p560-1: the ball game goes on as ordinary
  • p562-3: the manager substitutes Pearl, the coaches and umpires argue
  • p564: Pearl tries to get a walk by doing nothing at bat...
  • p565: Pearl hits the ball, the opposing ball team falls over themselves
  • p565-6: the manager attacks Pearl, all hell breaks loose
  • p567: everything is better on the team after that fracas
So Thurber's language and the outsized personalities of the characters do a lot to carry the story. For instance, Pearl himself often sounds either like a 1930s gangster or a carnival barker. But the story also goes along at a fast pace because it keeps changing and giving the reader some new scene or movement. For me, the most boring element is when the ball game goes on as ordinary, but even then, we have one way on Pearl and we know something is coming.

So maybe we should look at how Thurber manages anticipation. After all, despite the title and the repeated phrase, we can't actually look this up--we have to wait for the narrator to unfold the story.

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