Monday, June 24, 2013

The Third Circle by Frank Norris

Deserves to be plucked from obscurity
Frank Norris
Frank Norris is primarily known for his novels, most notably The Octopus and McTeague, but he also wrote a great deal of short stories, essays, and articles for various newspapers and periodicals. Following his untimely death in 1902, a portion of his short fiction was published in two posthumous collections. The first, A Deal in Wheat, published in 1906, is the better-known of these two volumes. Containing mostly mediocre adventure stories, it is not an exemplary collection of his work. The second volume of stories, The Third Circle, published in 1909, is virtually forgotten today to anyone but Norris scholars. Such obscurity is unmerited, however, for The Third Circle is far superior to A Deal in Wheat and much more indicative of Norris’s formidable literary talents.

The Third Circle consists of pieces written by Norris during his employment as a staff writer for the San Francisco Wave. At the Wave, Norris wrote everything from literary and art criticism to sports to travel pieces, but he was also given the opportunity to hone his craft as a fiction writer. The book features an informative introduction by Will Irwin, an editor of the Wave, after Norris’s time, who apparently compiled the collection from pieces he gleaned from the newspaper’s files. These days, the idea of a staff writer cranking out loads of fiction for a weekly periodical is almost ludicrous, and the quality of Norris’s stories renders the concept even more incredible. Equally staggering is the remarkably wide breadth of subject matter and variety of tone. Norris seems to be able to master any genre he tackles, and each subject he touches, no matter how fantastic, is handled with his distinctive, true-to-life naturalistic style.

The book opens with the title selection—a sensationalistic, pulpy tale of white slavery in Chinatown. This is followed by a few shorter pieces which are too fragmentary to satisfy. Norris beautifully captures slices of life from the streets of San Francisco, but he ends the stories too abruptly with weak or pointless endings. This unfortunate trend doesn’t last long, however. “A Reversion to Type,” the comical, action-packed tale of a department store salesman who suffers a mid-life crisis and goes off on a monumental bender, is excellent from beginning to end. Though the first few stories are confined to California, eventually the settings branch out to such exotic locales as a South African graveyard (“The Strangest Thing”), the Algerian desert (“Son of a Sheik”), and a Parisian art school (“‘This Animal of a Buldy Jones’”). There’s even a retelling of an Icelandic folk saga (“Grettir at Drangey”). The longer, better stories occupy the latter half of the book. Two of the best, “Toppan” and “A Caged Lion,” both feature a famous Tibetan explorer who has reluctantly returned to civilization—a character reminiscent of the hero of Norris’s novel A Man’s Woman. “Dying Fires” is a semi-autobiographical tale of a young newspaper man turned novelist who moves to New York and falls in with a bunch of literary types. The book closes with “The Guest of Honour,” an expertly paced, suspenseful tale that borders on horror.

Although Norris is renowned for his novels, and rightfully so, there are a few pieces here that can hold their own against his most famous books. The Third Circle is a very good showcase of this great American author’s work. Any fan of Norris’s writing will enjoy it.

Stories in this collection
The Third Circle 
The House With the Blinds 
Little Dramas of the Curbstone 
Shorty Stack, Pugilist 
The Strangest Thing 
A Reversion to Type 
The Dis-Associated Charities 
Son of a Sheik 
A Defense of the Flag 
A Caged Lion 
“This Animal of a Buldy Jones” 
Dying Fires 
Grettir at Drangey 
The Guest of Honour 

If you liked this review, please follow the link below to and give me a “helpful” vote. Thank you.

No comments:

Post a Comment