Monday, July 1, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 69: Eugene O’Neill, Tomorrow (#93)

Eugene O’Neill, "Tomorrow" (1917) from Eugene O’Neill: Complete Plays 1932–1943:

Like a character from a Shaw play, I really love to confess my sins. For all that one teacher at grad school told us to never admit to not having read a book, I left grad school very comfortable admitting that I didn't read or know something. So: I've never read O'Neill, or not much of him. So I appreciate it when the LoA page notes how this piece is his only published short story and how this short story sets out certain elements that reappear in O'Neill's later, more famous plays.

The main-line of the story can be told pretty quickly: from the POV of a sometimes-sailor, oftentimes drunk, we hear how his friend tries to get back to respectable writing work; after this friend fails, he breaks his prized geranium, and then commits suicide. But that main line is only a small part of this 21-page story. We also get the relationship between the drunk narrator and the sober friend, which is at times tense, cynical, warm, or supportive; there's the relationship with the other drinkers at this bar, Tommy the Priest's; there's the little stories that fill in the people's pasts.

And yet, for all that, we're still given the main-line story as if that should be enough to drag us through the story and the side issues. It is an interesting view of a non-mainstream human ecosystem--and it's very interesting to hear how so much of this was taken from O'Neill's own experience. As O'Neill noted of his time at the bar which in reality was called Jimmy the Priest's, “I learned at Jimmy the Priest’s not to sit on judgment on people."

But I'm not sure how far that non-judgmental tone goes in this story. The now-sober friend Jimmy does seem both celebrated for his sobriety and somewhat condoned for his fall into drunkenness when he realizes he's lost his gift. Some other aspects of the story are less well-done, however, like the whole geranium. Sure, there's something nice about a guy caring for this plant that never blossoms, which is a fine metaphor for Jimmy's life. But it's so pat that it doesn't really catch any emotion. It's going through the motions.

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