Friday, July 31, 2015

Short Story Review # 6: Narrow Valley (1966)


This story genuinely deserves to be included in anthologies of the American (USA) short story.  It is a regional yarn of post-colonial irony, highly amusing, its wonders deftly described, and a narrative richly layered with allusive material for class discussions and the writing of essays.  May the day speed on when we see this title listed next to stories by Flannery O'Connor, Mark Twain, Jack London, Charlotte Gilman, Shirley Jackson, Ray Bradbury, Langston Hughes, and so on.

I wrote a very short section about this story in my recent dissertation.  It was only in doing this that I properly realised just how many themes and elements Lafferty folded into this one short, seemingly light, tale.  In the dissertation, I could only talk a tiny bit about the land itself as a sort of character in the story.  It pained me not to even touch on the other elements.  If I could have done so, it would have strengthened even the discussion of the land because all the elements of the story reinforce each other (as well as leading off on individual tangents).

The story's three main themes that seem most central to me are:  1) the delightfully portrayed marvel of the valley's anomalous spatial-perceptual behaviour (with its political as well as ontological implications); 2) the wry lampooning of white reductionist views of Native Americans; 3) the equally wry lampooning of 'scientific' explanations and our modern psychological need for them in order to keep a mysterious universe at bay.

But these don't exhaust the story's charms and riches.  The dialogue, for example, is some of the funniest and sharpest in all of Lafferty's output.  One of my favourite instances is the exchange between the Rampart children and the Indian Clarence Little-Saddle when they're down in the valley together.  For example:
“Is there any wild Indians around here?” Fatty Rampart asked.
“No, not really. I go on a bender about every three months and get a little bit wild, and there's a couple Osage boys from Gray Horse that get noisy sometimes, but that's about all,” Clarence Little-Saddle said.
“You certainly don't intend to palm yourself off on us as an Indian,” Mary Mabel challenged. “You'll find us a little too knowledgeable for that.”
“Little girl, you might as well tell this cow there's no room for her to be a cow since you're so knowledgeable. She thinks she's a short-horn cow named Sweet Virginia; I think I'm a Pawnee Indian named Clarence. Break it to us real gentle if we're not.”
This badinage carries on, disabusing the children of their ethnic stereotypes.  Mary asks Clarence where his war bonnet is if he's a real Indian.  He in turn asks her why she's not wearing the Crown of Lombardy if she's supposed to be a real white girl.  After a little more back and forth, including asking where his bow and arrows are and him admitting he only did archery once and poorly at a range in T-Town, we get this:
“Hey, you old Indian, you lied!” Cecilia Rampart shrilled from the doorway of the shack. “You do have a war bonnet. Can I have it?” 
“I didn't mean to lie, I forgot about that thing,” Clarence Little-Saddle said. “My son Clarence Bare-Back sent that to me from Japan for a joke a long time ago. Sure, you can have it.”
An example of other elements buried in the story is the very occluded reference to the Rampart matriarch's own possible non-white ethnicity.  Her name is Nina, and she confesses to sometimes having an urge to disappear to Mexico forever.  This might be another reason why she and the children, unlike Robert Rampart the patriarch, are able to enter the fun and humour of the recalcitrant valley and thus 'play along' and experience its true dimensions.  At least for a little while.

I suppose that's a fourth central element:  humans having or lacking true dimensionality, which determines their ability to experience the true dimensionality of the world in which they exist (and the true dimensionality of one another, especially across racial lines).  Cue the concluding punny joke between Clarence and the ever-popular Lafferty stalwart, Willy McGilly the 'eminent scientist':
“Did we overdo it, Clarence?” Willy McGilly asked. “What did one flat-lander say to the other?”
“Dimension of us never got around,” Clarence said. “No, I don't think we overdid it, Willy.”
It's an all round great tale of magic, theory, repartee, and subversion of Manifest Destiny, supplying a variety of pleasures only truly appreciated on repeated readings.  It also, along with the other American Indian short stories Lafferty wrote, is deepened by (and deepens) a reading of Lafferty's historical novel of the Choctaw people Okla Hannali (1972).  There are various interesting resonances, but the poignancy only lightly implied in 'Narrow Valley' gets full voice in Okla, along with plenty more wonders and horrors and hilarities.

* Discussion of 'Narrow Valley' on Facebook

* 'Narrow Valley' on (including many links to other blog reviews of this story)

'Narrow Valley' appeared in this anthology among several others, as well as being included in Lafferty's seminal short story collection Nine Hundred Grandmothers (1970)
'It was all strong talk with the horns and hooves still on it.'
(R. A. Lafferty, The Devil is Dead)