Let's say it's winter, the days are dreary and gray, you're starting to suffer just a bit from cabin fever, and you can feel depression setting in. Looking for something to tip you right over the edge into full-blown I need some Prozac right now territory? Read this book. The good news is that Katherine Ann Porter could actually write. The bad news is that with a few rare exceptions what she chose to write about will leave you thinking, well, that was certainly depressing. Or unsettling. Or another fine example of there are no happy endings. You know, I don't expect everything I read to be upbeat and optimistic, but it would have been nice to see something good happen once in awhile to Porter's characters, maybe especially because it's clear a great deal of what Porter wrote about was highly autobiographical. Were her childhood and adolescence actually as horrible as this book suggests?
The Collected Stories of Katherine Ann Porter cover four decades of the author's writing life. Porter was born in 1890 so at the time this book came out she was 75. I found myself wondering if for her the Pulitzer was the equivalent of a lifetime achievement award, or maybe a consolation prize for the fact her novel Ship of Fools hadn't won a few years earlier.
Like way too many authors on the Pulitzer list of winners, Porter was from the South and most of her stories are set there, primarily in Texas. I know some people would argue that Texas is actually West, but Porter's stories set in sprawling houses and staffed by black servants who once were slaves come across as thoroughly southern. Porter herself was born in Texas. Her mother died when she was quite young so she was raised by her grandmother. Sort of. Her grandmother dropped dead on a trip to Marfa when Porter was only 11. She married young, divorced her husband when he turned out to be an abusive lout, became a journalist, traveled to Mexico to hang out with revolutionaries and party with artists like Diego Rivera, married again, divorced, remarried, divorced. . . I lost count, but there was a fair amount of serial monogamy with the last two marriages being to men much younger than she was.
I said that Porter could write. That wasn't immediately apparent when I began the book. The capsule biographies I found tend to describe her prose as "flawless." That's a slight exaggeration. Any prose that makes you work at reading it isn't flawless. Anyway, the stories are in chronological order. Like most authors, Porter's work wasn't exactly great at the beginning. The first few stories are grounded in her experiences in Mexico and were in fact written while she was still there. I had a hard time wading through them. The introduction to the book talked about Porter's "beloved Mexico." Well, if she loved Mexico she had a strange way of showing it. None of the stories pictured the country in a way that would have me flipping through travel brochures and telling the S.O. we should try wintering in Puerto Vallarta. The countryside sounded bleak and arid, the peons were ignorant and unwashed, the ruling class were dissolute and arrogant.
Of course, when the setting for her stories shifted to more explicitly autobiographical settings, things didn't improve much. Well, the writing did. I do take issue, however, with labeling these stories as "fiction." Other than tweaking the names a little bit, I kept getting the feeling what I was actually reading was memoir. One short story dealt with a married couple with a highly toxic marriage -- given Porter's own troubles with marriage, I couldn't help but wonder which husband she was describing: the abusive lout or the one who gave her such a bad case of gonorrhea she had to have a hysterectomy. A man named "Harry" shows up as the father in quite a few stories; Porter's father was named Harrison. The collection includes the novella "Pale Horse, Pale Rider," in which the main character almost dies of the Spanish flu, an experience that mirrored Porter's own near death illness. And so it went -- story after story that didn't involve a whole lot of imagination to write, just memories. She would have had a hard time claiming that any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, was strictly coincidental because she couldn't have made it clearer she was writing about her own life if she'd given her characters her own and her siblings' names.
So just what is a typical Porter story like? If I were to give it a formula for let us say a 10-page story it would be 7 pages of highly readable and occasionally light-hearted, even whimsical in places, prose, 2 pages of something throwing everything off track, and then a final page of Holy wah, why did she just drop a piano on us? You know, the 2 pages of being thrown off kilter is generally pretty grim (a horrible flood that results in someone dying) but the final page? That's when she whips out the equivalent of one of those mauls slaughterhouses once used to kill cows. After you've read a few of the stories, you know it's coming, you're about to get quartered and hung from a hook, but morbid curiousity keeps you turning the pages. Sometimes the buzzkill is not that horrible, except maybe from the perspective of a child who just had a bubble burst (a seldom-seen uncle who had been pictured as glamorous and exotic turns out to be a fat drunk living in a flophouse), and sometimes it really is quite literally someone dropping dead on the door sill.
Would I recommend this book to other readers? It's another Yes and No. I know there are some readers who enjoy a good dreary tale or stories that build slowly to a tragic denouement. After all, Joyce Carol Oates manages to sell books and she's a heck of a lot drearier to read than this book was. If, on the other hand, you figure life is grim enough without topping it off with some realistic writing to remind you things can be even worse than you imagined, I'd avoid The Collected Stories of Katherine Ann Porter. As for where I'd put it using the 1-10 scale, it falls at about a 6. Better than average, but not by much.
Next up: The Fixer by Bernard Malamud. I don't think it'll be much cheerier -- the brief description I read mentioned a murdered child and anti-Semitism -- but at least it won't be set in the South.