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?

Review: The Member of the Wedding

memberofthewedding_coverI read Carson McCullers’ The Ballad of the Sad Café and loved her lyrical prose. Her writing is deceptively simple and has a laid-back, soothing quality — perfect for a vacation. The Member of the Wedding has many of the wonderful qualities that McCullers is known for, but it feels a little loose and repetitive. You could argue the repetition emphasizes and describes the protagonist’s boredom, but the pace drags even at a scant 163 pages. That said, Frankie’s dialogue and ludicrous scheme are simultaneously funny and touching. McCullers strikes a strange balance with such a character; Frankie carries the novel when the plot and supporting characters weaken.

I wrote a summation, but it was so near the book jacket that it sounded plagiarized. There aren’t many ways to sum up a simple story. According to the cover:

[…] Carson McCullers’ classic The Member of the Wedding tells the story of the inimitable twelve-year-old Frankie, who is utterly, hopelessly bored with life until she hears about her older brother’s upcoming marriage. Bolstered by lively conversations with the family maid, Berenice, and her six-year-old male cousin – not to mention her own unbridled imagination – Frankie takes an overly active role in the wedding. She hopes even to go, uninvited, on the honeymoon, so deep is her desire to become part of something larger, more accepting, than herself.

Frankie’s itchy, adolescent desperation to belong can be understood by anyone who has been a twelve-year-old. It’s her plan to become a third wheel in her brother’s marriage that makes her unique and drives the novel’s odd, lonely humor. And yet, to Frankie, it’s the most logical thing to do. If she doesn’t belong anywhere else, then she must belong with her brother:

Yesterday, and all the twelve years of her life, she had only been Frankie. She was an I person who had to walk around and do things by herself. All other people had a we to claim, all others except her. When Berenice said we, she meant Honey and Big Mama, her lodge, or her church. The we of her father was the store. All members of clubs have a we to belong to and talk about. The soldiers in the army can say we, and even the criminals on chain-gangs. But the old Frankie had had no we to claim, unless it would be the terrible summer we of her and John Henry and Berenice—and that was the last we in the world she wanted. (42)

Once Frankie decides to join the we of her brother and his bride, she takes the name F. Jasmine and refers to her pre-epiphany self as the “old Frankie”. Her insistence to separate herself from the person she was only weeks prior is endearing. She believes this single epiphany will snap her into adulthood, into the person she is meant to be. What adolescent doesn’t feel this way when deciding something important? As F. Jasmine becomes more focused, so does McCullers’ writing.

It’s F. Jasmine’s imagination and her conversations with Berenice that hook the reader. Though F. Jasmine believes she will start anew with her brother and his wife, everyone (including the reader) knows better. Even though I understood this, the end still had a few surprises. This is a sad book in many ways, but worthwhile. It’s slow-moving, but it does have moments of emotional payoff.

Overall: 3.8. McCullers’ other novels are written more cleanly with a better eye for detail. I expected more from her. (Is this fair?) I’ve heard this book is also a play; since the dialogue is the strongest aspect of the book, I think it would work well as such.

Translation: It’s a nice afternoon read.