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Thursday 3 June 2010

Short story appraisal - 02

The first tale in Modern Short Stories is by Jack Schaefer: ‘Jeremy Rodock’, which is taken from the collection The Big Range. The story's narrator isn’t named. He’s looking back at the time of which he writes, when he was ‘young then with a stretch in my legs, about topping twenty, and Jeremy Rodock was already an old man.’ Whenever Rodock talks to the narrator, he calls him ‘son’. This is a good ploy by the writer: being unnamed, the narrator almost becomes invisible, because what he reveals is not about him but his subject, Rodock.

The narrator works for Rodock, who supplies quality horses to stage lines. When about forty mares and their foals go missing, Rodock and the narrator set out to find them. During their tracking, horse know-how is neatly divulged until finally they come upon the herd. Their discovery is two-edged, however. The rustlers played a mean and cruel trick that meant Rodock couldn’t herd the animals back to the ranch. It then became a battle of wits between him and the rustlers. An eventual showdown was inevitable, but that too didn’t quite boil down to a shootout. The nature of Rodock the man meant that the battle of wills continued with the rustlers. It would be churlish to divulge more, save that in his own words Schaefer strives to ‘depict the raw material of human individuality through action and plot’. He viewed the Old West as a place ‘in which energies and capabilities of men and women, for good or for evil, were unleashed on an individual basis as they had rarely been before or elsewhere in human history’. He tended to pit a strongly individualised character ‘against a specific human problem and show how he rose to meet it’. Schaefer’s stories are about individuals – an overused word above – but valid nevertheless.

This isn’t the only eponymous story Schaefer has written. Not surprising, really, since Schaefer was profoundly interested in characters and how they fit into the world.

The next tale is ‘To build a fire’ by Jack London and he also uses an unnamed character, though this story is written in the third person. 'The man' is stranded alone in the Yukon, with only a half-wild dog with no name for company. And the sun wasn’t due to fill the sky for many days yet; instead, there was ‘an intangible pall over the face of things, a subtle gloom that made the day dark…’ We don’t know why the man was here, though he was intent on meeting up with ‘the boys’ in camp before long. Unfortunately, he underestimated the intensity of the cold. The dog probably only stayed with him because he had matches and lit fires to create warmth. But there are only so many matches in a box. And the numbness that swamps the body’s extremities cannot be imagined until it happens: it is devastating. Throughout this tale, London gives us insights into the land and the climate and the basic lore of survival, based on his own experience.

London’s story is a fitting companion piece for Schaefer’s. Both take place in primitive wild and lonely lands. Man is surrounded by nature that is beautiful and threatening. Schaefer relates about the struggle between men of strong will, while London’s tale is about man’s conflict with awesome nature. London employs many good phrases, notably, ‘The cold of space smote the unprotected tip of the planet, and he, being on that unprotected tip, received the full force of the blow. The blood of his body recoiled before it.’ Great stuff and memorable.


Anonymous said...
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Nik Morton said...

Thanks, I think???

Matthew P. Mayo said...

Hey Nik,
Nice to hear you mention Jack Schaefer. I'm a big fan of his work, both fiction and non-fiction. In fact, one of my favorite books is his novel, The Canyon.

And that Jack London story is amazing. I reread it once a year or so. Talk about a crash course in how to build tension!


Nik Morton said...

Thanks, Matt. I have a few more to add to this series soon.

Ron Scheer said...

Jack Schaefer is fine. This story was made into a movie, Tribute to a Bad Man, with James Cagney as Rodock.