Friday, August 21, 2009

On "First Love and Other Sorrows" by Harold Brodkey *****

I first read this collection some twenty years ago. I hadn't returned to it since, but it stayed on my shelf--and there is a reason. It is good. It is very good. Brodkey's second collection, Stories in an Almost Classical Mode, didn't impress me as much--repeating characters, stories that seemed to repeat themes and details--it got boring (save for the most amazing sex story I've ever read, "Innocence," a forty-something-page description of a guy trying to give his lover her first ever orgasm). Then I started reading his novel The Runaway Soul and recognized so much from the second collection that I gave up. But his first book has kept a place in my heart all this time, and I've been meaning to reread it for several years now.

And now I have. What a pleasure it was to return to. I recognize many of the things he does in the second collection, but here--perhaps because the collection is shorter--they don't grow so irritating, so redundant. The first half of First Love revolves around narrators who are adolescent (teen and young adult) boys. Here, I'm probably the most entertained. We get the story of a boy seducing a girl, while his older sister works on seducing a husband. We get a boy babysitter who, as he looks back on that time as an adult, recognizes that he isn't living up to what he could be living up to during those youthful moments. We get a boy in college who falls for a young woman and watch as the two characters, in all their clumsy youthfulness, move from love sickness to simply being sick of one another (and back again). The second half of the collection, while less entertaining on the whole, revolves around a girl named Laura, as she moves through the early stages of marriage--dating, marrying, having a child, becoming an adult (sort of).

What makes Brodkey's stories so grand to me, besides his command of the English language, is that they seem have such keen psychological insights into their characters. We watch these people, in all their confidence and lack of it, swagger from moment to moment, between varying emotions and thoughts not very dissimilar to our own. And yet, Brodkey does this so well that the emotions and thoughts seem fresh, seem singular. Only this character would think this at this particular moment. Such heavy attention to thought, taken to extremes, as it is in some of the stories in his second collection and in Runaway Soul, where he's got eight-year-old kids thinking such complex things about the world around them one wonders how they ever managed to grow up, it can seem ridiculous, but here, in this lovely first collection, every bit of writing seems to work just fine.

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