Monday, October 29, 2012

Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter

A triumphant trifecta
This book by Katherine Anne Porter, originally published in 1939, consists of three short novels, each about fifty pages long. Though the three pieces vary in style and subject matter, they are all of exceptional quality and admirably showcase Porter’s estimable talent for crafting short fiction.

In the first piece, “Old Mortality,” two young sisters grow up listening to the family stories told by their parents’ and grandparents’ generations, which over time develop into a sort of mythology. The most romanticized character in the family saga is the tragic figure of Aunt Amy, who, praised for her beauty and perfection yet criticized for her free spirit, suffered from tuberculosis and died at a young age. Though written in the third person, the novel is related through the eyes of Miranda, the younger of the two young girls. As she grows into womanhood, Miranda begins to understand that the reality of the past does not live up to the romanticized mythology she grew up with, and that family, beyond its sheltering comforts, has a dark side as well.

The second novel, “Noon Wine,” takes place on a farm in southern Texas. Mr. and Mrs. Thompson, despite having two young children, are growing aged and infirm. They cannot keep up with the farm work as they used to. Salvation comes in the form of Mr. Helton, a stranger who shows up at their gate one day asking for work. Mr. Helton is a Swede from South Dakota, and a relentlessly hard worker. As a farmhand he is truly the answer to the Thompsons’ prayers. Yet, as most good things are too good to be true, the Thompsons soon begin to suspect that this laconic stranger may have some dark secrets in his mysterious past.

The final piece, “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” also stars a young woman named Miranda, whom we can assume is the same girl from the first piece, though it’s never explicitly stated. Now 24, alone and independent, she works as a theatre critic for a newspaper in a western “hick town,” which sounds a lot like Denver. Miranda falls in love with a soldier who will soon depart for the European battlefields of World War I. She despises the war and the jingoism that accompanies it, and dreads the day when her new love will depart for his inevitable doom. War is not the only manifestation of death that looms ominously on Miranda’s horizon, however, as an influenza epidemic also rages through the city.

My personal taste in literature usually leans toward more antiquated works of romantic, realist, and naturalist stylings, but as far as the literature between the World Wars is concerned, Porter is clearly the best of the American modernists. She utilizes the linguistic experimentation and psychological probity characteristic of modernism to her advantage, without indulging in the gratuitous verbal games to which so many of her contemporaries succumbed. Her writing straddles the line between the naturalism of Theodore Dreiser and the modernism of William Faulkner, combining the best characteristics of both while dispensing with their faults. “Noon Wine,” which is primarily a naturalistic piece, is the strongest work in the book, while the more abstract “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” is the weakest. At times it seems the main purpose of the latter piece is for Porter to demonstrate her prowess at depicting surrealistic, influenza-induced hallucinations. Nevertheless, all three novels are very strong works of literature and will appeal to readers of all stripes who appreciate writing that’s both proficient and profound.

Stories in this collection
Old Mortality 
Noon Wine 
Pale Horse, Pale Rider 

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