Monday, October 7, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 167: O. Henry, The Duel (#89)

O. Henry, "The Duel" (1910) from Writing New York: A Literary Anthology:

A quirky little story with a purposely overblown opening frame and an undercutting closer, this O. Henry story reminds me of the pieces Woody Allen occasionally writes for the New Yorker--with a heavy side-order of regret.

The story opens with almost two entire pages about how New York is different from other cities: when you go there, you either have to remain a stranger or totally give yourself to the city. But this frame opens up discussing the gods' eye view of cities and only eventually gets to that point. So when we get to the end of the frame and read, "And this dreary preamble is only to introduce to you the unimportant figures of William and Jack," we know that there's some comic misdirection going on. From gods to New York to William and Jack, the story seems to be narrowing down its vision to give us some story.

But no, the story here is pretty thin: William and Jack came to NYC, one for business, the other for art; they meet and discuss how William has given in to NYC and Jack still doesn't heart it. Then suddenly we're with William as he gazes out at the city and gets a telegram saying that the girl he (presumably) proposed to before will say yes now... if he comes back home. He deliberates and eventually refuses for now. Thus showing how the city really has conquered him: by replacing the object of his love. (And also by offering plenty of new opportunities, both business and leisure, that he couldn't get out west. As someone who lives in a small city in the west now, I feel for William.)

So what's the moral here? That New York City is a bad place that consumes people? Or that it offers exciting new opportunities? The narrator ends the story by saying that he asked a friend--who was too busy buying Christmas presents to deal with this. Which is a cute end-run around the problem here: sure, it seems like the subtext is "NYC is too busy" since the friend has no time for the narrator; but the friend is buying Christmas presents, which certainly connects the friend to his own friends and family. So: NYC is busy, but not destructive of friendship and family-feeling.

While the story seems to deal with heavy issues--the mass consumerism of the city, the way that career can dislocate personality or family--Henry holds it all off at arm's-length, giving everything a distant, god's eye view that prevents us from getting sucked into any one person's emotions. We can laugh because there's no threat of us breaking out into tears--though, for my money, that makes the laughs a little shallower.

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