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Book Review: Bowles: Collected Stories and Later Writings, Edited by Daniel Halpern

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The Library of America’s Bowles: Collected Stories and Later Writings, a companion volume to their edition of his three novels, coming in at over a thousand pages, is not the kind of book most readers are going to sit down and read cover to cover. Moreover, unless they are scholars doing research on the expatriate, it would probably not be the best way to experience the wealth of material, anyway. There can be too much even of a good thing. There are a lot of stories here: fifty-two, according to the notes, as well as an assortment of other pieces. Too much at one time, and everything begins to run together; stories lose their definition. This is the kind of book that needs to be dipped into and savored a story or two or three at a time.

Included in the volume are five of Bowles’ published collections: The Delicate Prey and Other Stories (1950), A Hundred Camels in the Courtyard (1962), The Time of Friendship (1967), Things Gone and Things Still Here (1977), and Midnight Mass (1981). There are also selections from his later stories, his 1963 travel book, Their Heads Are Green and Their Hands Are Blue, and his short novel Up Above the World. It is a veritable cornucopia for the Bowles fan, especially since some of Bowles’ best writing is in his short stories.

The theme that most often seems to dominate his best work is the clash of cultures. He likes to set a representative or two of so called Western civilization in some foreign culture — primitive Central American Indian or alien North African, for example — and see how they fare. More often than not, they don’t fare very well. Their civilized codes are little help to them when faced with those who do not subscribe to those codes. Probably the best example of this is “A Distant Episode,” a story in which a Western professor is enslaved and reduced to madness by a Nomadic band of Arabs called the Reguibat. There are, of course, many other examples. “Afternoon With Antaeus” echoes the Greek myth in a monologue where the speaker gets the better of a visiting Westerner. In “Under the Sky” an Indian rapes a Western woman who may well be a more than willing victim. It is a common theme in his stories.

In some sense the cultural conflict is often between rationality and superstition, and more often than not, it is superstition that seems strongest. “The Circular Valley” is the story of an evil spirit that inhabits a Central American valley. The local Indians know enough to stay away; civilized Westerners are not so smart. Bowles rarely identifies specific countries. He sometimes mentions cities, but they are often generic names. For the geographically impaired Central America or South America often have to be as specific as it gets. “Pastor Dowe at Tacate” is another example of the failure of Western values, in this case religious values, in the face of Indian beliefs. In “The Eye” a Canadian is killed in the mistaken belief he has given a child the evil eye.

There are other themes; there are other subjects. Bowles is not a one trick pony. Unfortunately they don’t always show Bowles at his best. “Kitty” is a slight tale about a child who imagines herself a cat because of her name. Indeed she may actually become one. “In Absentia” is a series of letters from a man to an older female friend and a young girl whose education he is paying for, which, dramatic monologue like, reveals more about the man than intended. “Senor Ong and Senor Ha” is meant to be an ironic tale about drug selling from the point of view of a young boy. In general, these stories lack the vitality of Bowles’ more interesting work.

Up Above the World, the novella published in 1966, is probably the longest piece in the collection. According to editor Daniel Halpern’s notes, Bowles wrote to Richard Peabody in 1983, explaining, “I simply wanted to see if I could write a ‘suspense’ novel that would be unlike others of its genre.” It was rejected by his publisher, Random House, he wrote, as being too “nihilistic.” Nihilistic, perhaps, it does present a portrait of a completely amoral young man who seems to have no qualms about engaging in the most heinous crimes with very little, if any, reason.

On the other hand what Bowles has created, it could be argued, is a charming, handsome villain with a smiling face; the kind of villain who has become a stock figure in modern thrillers. Evil, after all, need not be ugly and deformed. Caught in his web is a May/December American couple celebrating an anniversary in an unnamed Latin American country. He is much older, and their relationship seems strained at best. Even before the young villain appears on the scene there is a sense of impending menace in the story. The reader doesn’t quite know what to expect, but it is clear that something bad is going to happen.

Although December 30th marks the one hundredth anniversary of Bowles’ birth, his writing has much to tell the modern reader. In a world where the kind of cultural conflicts his work examines have become the headlines on the twenty four hour news channels, his work is even more of the moment than it was when he wrote it. This Library of America collection together with its companion volume is a fitting tribute to the writer’s legacy.

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About Jack Goodstein