Review: The Ballad of the Sad Cafe

Carson McCuller’s The Ballad of the Sad Café is my go-to book when coping with flight anxiety. It’s so absorbing that I can overlook minor turbulence while reading. I’ve read it six or seven times now with a year or two between readings. It’s phenomenal every time.

The story is simple: Miss Amelia is a jack-of-all-trades in a small, poor town. From handling a bit of everything, she’s earned a good amount of money and is the wealthiest woman for miles. When a stranger claims to be her cousin, the town eagerly anticipates the sight of Miss Amelia tossing the con-man out on his ear. But she doesn’t. His presence effects some positive changes—she begins serving regular dinners at her store and becomes more generous—but Cousin Lymon’s slimy presence leaves everyone bracing for a fall. I first read this book for a college course and spent the next week picking it apart. I was less concerned with themes/symbolism than the question of why, WHY does Miss Amelia get so tangled with Cousin Lymon?

Just as in A Member of the Wedding, McCullers’ prose is beautiful. When I think back to this book, I recall not only words, but images. It’s more like remembering a film than a book. Her descriptions are plain-spoken, but rich in detail. It’s calm and a little sleepy:

Opening lines:
The town itself is dreary; not much is there except the cotton mill, the two-room houses where the workers live, a few peach trees, a church with two colored windows, and a miserable main street only a hundred yards long. On Saturdays the  tenants from the near-by farms come in for a day of talk and trade. Otherwise the town is lonesome, sad, and like a place that is far off and estranged from all other places in the world. The nearest train stop is Society City, and the Greyhound and White Bus Lines use the Forks Falls Road which is three miles away. The winters here are short and raw, the summers white with glare and fiery hot. (3)

As for Miss Amelia:

Miss Amelia was rich. In addition to the store she operated a still three miles back in the swamp, and ran out the best liquor in the county. She was a dark, tall woman with bones and muscles like a man. Her hair was cut short and brushed back from the forehead, and there was about her sunburned face a tense, haggard quality. She might have been a handsome woman if, even then, she was not slightly cross-eyed. There were those who would have courted her, but Miss Amelia cared nothing for the love of men and was a solitary person. Her marriage had been unlike any other marriage ever contracted in this county—it was a strange and dangerous marriage, lasting only for ten days, that left the whole town wondering and shocked. Except for this queer marriage, Miss Amelia had lived her life alone. Often she spent whole nights back in her shed in the swamp, dressed in overalls and gum boots, silently guarding the low fire of the still. (4-5)

It brings me joy to read a well-written story, but I finish it with the same unsettled, heartbroken feeling every time. Some folks might not enjoy the subject matter or setting, but I’m confident we can all agree that it’s brilliantly crafted and paced.

As for the themes and questions of WHY that plagued me through college, McCullers lays these out early. Once the point is established, she builds her characters and their interactions. This style reminds me of a quote I once heard about Anna Karenina: “We do not judge, we watch.” McCullers presents her characters as they are without over-explaining their actions or answering for them. She doesn’t twist the narrative in a more palatable direction or call out Cousin Lymon’s faults. It’s as though she’s a reporter simply relaying a story for the reader to question and experience for themselves.

Overall: 5 out of 5  If you handed me a red pen and told me to mark it up, I’d hand back a clean copy. I’m not taking off points for its sadness; it’s right there in the title, after all. Besides, you can’t expect a story about unrequited love to have many butterflies.

Translation: Read it.

Sidenote: Yes, I have The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. No, I haven’t read it yet. I don’t know what I’m waiting for. I can’t help worrying it won’t live up to the hype of McCullers’ shorter works. Has anyone read it?

2 thoughts on “Review: The Ballad of the Sad Cafe

  1. Sounds brilliant! I love the idea that she just lays it out and leaves the rest up to the reader – so many contemporary authors seem to feel the need to fill all the spaces and leave no room for the reader.

    • The Ballad of the Sad Cafe was published in 1951 so it’s right in the sweet spot of being a little bit modern and a little bit classic. Some of the techniques in contemporary writing bug me more than they should. Ha.

      That said, reading it multiple times will fill in a good many of the spaces since you’ll catch all the foreshadowing. It’s definitely a hands-off style for a first-time reader though, which is probably why my English prof assigned it. 🙂

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