Maybe God didn't drop by at all

Shaw, Irwin. 1973. God was here but He left early. New York: Arbor House.

I had this book on my "to read some day" shelf for so long that I finally took it down last night & read it. Two short stories (about magazine length) and 3 long ones (70 pp. or more, too long for the magazines). The blurbs have it right: Shaw was a skilled story-crafter. He created intriguing situations, and vivid characters who talked in revealing and often arresting ways. But--

The longer pieces are comic fantasies, like Vonnegut but without the mad imagination. In "Whispers in Bedlam," a not very bright professional football player who has never thought deeply about anything suddenly acquires the power to hear distant whispers and even unspoken thoughts -- enabling him to acquire riches and fame (in business, poker, and football) but revealing a world of hypocrisy and deceit that so horrifies him that... Well, you can guess the rest. In "The Mannichon Solution," a nebbish chemist working in the detergents department while dreaming of the Nobel Prize accidently discovers a solution that might make him rich and famous but that kills any organism with yellow pigment, and for which the only likely buyer is the C.I.A. (to drop into the Yangtze to solve the "yellow peril" problem). And "Small Saturday" links the efforts of a little bookseller to get a date with a bigger woman to the stories of each of the women he calls-- clever, cute, but not very probing bouquet of anecdotes about the NYC singles scene circa 1967.

Of the shorter pieces, "Where all things wise and fair descend" is mostly an opportunity for Shaw to quote some of his favorite 19th century poetry, which contributes sweetly to the maturing of a nice, good-hearted college boy. Don't bother, unless you want to read Shelley and don't happen to have a copy of the original handy.

The title story is the best -- though the cute title has almost nothing to do with it. A very believable, attractive, intelligent and divorced American professional woman is trying rather desperately to arrange an abortion in Europe. We never learn whether she succeeds or not, because what interests Shaw is how she develops and what she learns in her sometimes cagey, sometimes direct attempts to achieve something that Is Just Not Talked About.

Like the critics say, Shaw's writing did sometimes remind me of Hemingway, especially in the title story, which is about the revelation of character rather than the closure of some action. But then, Hemingway's famous story "Hills like White Elephants" is so much subtler that some readers don't even recognize that it's about the same subject.

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