I once had an English professor who told our undergraduate class that it was best to sip strong whiskey while reading anything written by William Faulkner. Well, after reading The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Other Stories by Carson McCullers, I would imagine he would want to have an entire bottle on hand, preferably strong Sour Mash. The characters who inhabit her stories are an assortment of freaks, geeks, and lost souls that shake one to the core, and the worlds she creates are ones out of the foggy depths of nightmares.
If you look into the rather brief life of McCullers (1917-1967), you will see she came from the South, studied piano, spent time in New York City, had a troubled relationship with her spouse, battled alcoholism, tried to commit suicide, and was basically unhealthy for most of her days. One can look at her picture and see an infinite sadness in her face, sort of an external manifestation of all the twisted characters and strange stories she had brimming inside her. When she died much too soon of a brain hemorrhage, she left behind a staggeringly haunting, beautiful, and powerful literary legacy.
Having read The Ballad of the Sad Cafe in high school, I remember thinking that the novella was weird and not my cup of tea, but going back and revisiting the story now, I saw all the nuances my teenage mind missed, but perhaps it was best that I did not realize at the time the darkness that permeated the story, or maybe I understood it but reacted to it by purposely ignoring the ugly truths of the fragile humanity it depicted.
It is hard to find someone to like in the novella, with the protagonist, Miss Amelia Evans, being a cross between Dickens’s Miss Havisham and Faulkner’s Benjy Compson. This hulking woman is anything but ladylike, and yet she inhabits the story as the woman to please and to love in a town devoid of anything resembling romance or culture.
Having been supposedly jilted by her husband of ten days many years before, Miss Amelia becomes a tough businessperson, a medicine woman of sorts, maker of fine whiskey, and the closest thing to a mayor the town has ever known. She sells whiskey from her general store and lives a hard life in a place that has no gentility of which to speak.
Everything changes one night when a stranger arrives in town, a small man with a hunched back who claims to be her Cousin Lymon. Whatever possesses Miss Amelia to accept him is left a mystery to the reader, but soon Cousin Lymon has ingratiated himself into her life, and she cares for him almost as a beloved pet, with the town folks thinking that they live together in the rooms above her store in what most believe to be “sin.”
The freakish nature of Lymon and Amelia’s relationship is magnified by their decision to open a cafe in the store. Eventually it becomes a place where people can sit at tables to drink whiskey (as opposed to standing on the front porch), buy meals, and enjoy music played on “a fine mechanical piano.” This little bit of civilized living seems to have emanated from Lymon, but as the narrator points out, it has more to do with love. Apparent to all in the town, Miss Amelia is in love with Lymon, but she is “the lover” and he is “the beloved.” As such, the diminutive man has a powerful hold on her.
All of this good feeling comes to a halt when Amelia’s ex-husband, Marvin Macy, comes back to town after serving time in prison. This throws a classic triangle into the plot, but it has less to do with love than with power and revenge. As the situation becomes more grave and bizarre, moving toward the inevitable climax, one cannot help wondering whether any of the three will survive.
In the end The Ballad of the Sad Cafe is a powerful novella that teaches us some difficult lessons, all of which are learned because of the terrible price paid by the three main characters of this story.
The short stories that accompany the novella are equally powerful and filled with similar depictions of people who are warped either by time or situation or disease.
In “Wunderkind” (her first published story) we meet a young girl named Frances who works with a Jewish music teacher who has high hopes for her, labeling her a “Wunderkind,” but that title takes a toll on her. It seems that Frances at thirteen has moved away from her once prodigious possibilities. She recognizes that “Her hands seemed separate from the music that was in her.” Is it that she no longer has the passion, or does she wish to forsake the hours of practice so that she can live life like an ordinary girl?
“The Jockey” is a portrait of Bitsy Barlow, a kindred spirit of Cousin Lymon in the novella; he is a small man described as an almost reptilian creature “with dwarfed body” and “gray claws” for hands. Bitsy’s days as a successful jockey seem to be over, as he mourns a good friend who has been seriously hurt on the track. Bitsy confronts the people he believes are responsible for the accident, drinks himself into oblivion, and moves toward what might be a place of no return.
In “Madame Zilinsky and the King of Finland,” we are presented with another tragic character. Madame Zilinksy arrives at Ryder College to teach music, but she almost immediately sets off an alarm for administrator Mr. Brook, who sees in her an “impression of vague elegance” but remains disturbed by her many idiosyncrasies. As time passes and after many incidents, Mr. Brook discovers what is at the heart of all her problems: “The woman was simply a pathological liar.” After she goes on about knowing the King of Finland, Mr. Brook decides to confront her, with less than satisfactory results.
“The Sojourner” may offer the saddest portrait in the book: John Ferris. He is a man who has returned to the states for his father’s funeral after living abroad for many years. On his last day in New York before returning to Paris, Ferris has a chance encounter with his ex-wife Elizabeth on the street, which leads to his going to dinner at her apartment. As Elizabeth plays a song on the piano for him as she had always done during their marriage, she is interrupted by the maid. “The unfinished song” provokes great sadness in him and, as he is confronted by the vision of Elizabeth’s domestic bliss with new husband and two children, Ferris gets drunk and starts falling deeper into a state of remorse and grief. Can he find some meaning in his life or is it too late?
A “Domestic Dilemma” is as dark a story as one can read, with good husband Martin Meadows coming home from work each day in the city to a dark little secret in his apparently perfect home. Here his wife Emily has become a morose and difficult person, after Martin’s job forced a relocation from the South to New York. Surrounded by strangers in the suburbs and feeling all alone, Emily falls into alcoholism and commits sly manipulations to try to cover things up. After she drops the baby in the bathtub, causing her to bleed, Martin gets a full-time nanny, but his fears are not allayed. Can this marriage be saved? Or will he be forced to do the unthinkable in order to protect his children?
Finally, “A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud” focuses on a derelict in a sleazy streetcar cafe who seems to be drowning in his beer. As a young paperboy comes into the cafe after delivering his morning papers, the man focuses his attention on the boy and tells him “I love you.” What follows is a glimpse of the darkness of one man’s soul as he rationalizes his feelings about love and loss to an audience of the boy and a grizzled counterman named Leo. After explaining his crazy theories about love, he excitedly asks, “Do you realize what a science like mine can mean?” The story and the book end less with answers than with more provocative questions about the nature of love and how dark human beings can become without it.
The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Other Stories is a brilliantly grim look at what human beings can and will do to one another, in the absence of love, in the presence of incongruities of life, and because of the darkest nights that besiege the soul. While it’s not a pleasant journey to say the least, it is an unforgettable one that will force you to think about these tales again and again long after you are finished reading them.