marginalia || “First Love and Other Sorrows,” by Harold Brodkey

Short Story Spotlight is a segment which features the short story. Because sometimes, we don’t need 60,000 ++ words to tell us about the meaning of life and all that jazz. Besides, it’ll help me wade through the short story collections crowding by “Currently Reading” pile, harhar. /lolhiddenagenda

The short story “First Love and Other Sorrows” by Harold Brodkey can be found in My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead: Great Love Stories, from Chekhov to Munro, edited by Jeffrey Eugenides*. In fact, this is where I first discovered Harold Brodkey. And another fact: this was what revived my faith in the power of the short story–a power that catches you unaware.

The narrator is a sixteen-year-old boy, a little sensitive, a little wallflower-ish. He lives in a house of women, and their issues: there is his mother who once lived the high life, and is now determined to be pracitcal, “[b]ut being practical did not come easy to her”; and there is his older sister, a typical young woman eager to meet boys, and be young–until she finds herself dating Sonny, and only Sonny, a situation that doesn’t sit well with her (or her insightful younger brother). But who knows why she keeps on dating him? Who knows why his mother has resolved to hang on to the good life only she had been witness to? Our boy doesn’t know. And, of course, there is the girl next door. Through it all, the narrator grapples with what it means to be a man, and how can one grow up “properly” to do so–and whether this thing they called love is reliable, or even credible. This all sounds trite when I recount it to y’all, but the exploration of this oft-used trope, when set against the “more complicated” world of women and their desires–well, it’s a whopper.

But. What I really wanted to talk about is two sentences. Two measly sentences, which is bolded in the following excerpt:

My best friend was a boy named Preston, who already had a heavy beard. He was shy, and unfortunate in his dealings with other people, and he wanted to be a physicist. He had very little imagination, and he pitied anyone who did have it. “You and the word ‘beautiful’!” he would say disdainfully, holding his nose and imitating my voice. “Tell me–what does ‘beautiful’ mean?”

“It’s something you want,” I would say.

When I first read that, I passed over it, went on with the dialogue, the narrative. But a paragraph or two later, something nagged at me, something told me, “Hey, the Universe was trying to tell you something, and you just went on, dammit.” So I went back. Read the passage again. Struck by its simplicity, its charming awkwardness, it’s truth. The right words in the proper order, said on poet. The truest thing you know, advised a fictionist.

And, damn, it hit me: this was what was so wonderful about this short story, about all well-written short stories–it’s capability to invest so much emotion, so much truth, into such a few words. That it’s all so easy to overlook when one has grown comfortable with carelessness. That when you tell yourself to stay still once in a while, and rediscover–there it is, something beautiful.

My smile, it got wobbly. Dear Mr. Brodkey–where have you been all my life?

* Originally compiled in First Love and Other Sorrows: Stories, by Harold Brodkey.

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