Wednesday, April 4, 2007

The Ballad of the Sad Cafe

The Ballad of the Sad Cafe: and Other Stories, by Carson McCullers
$7.95 at Bn.com ISBN: 0681565868
This is a love story, as touching as Romeo & Juliet, Gone With the Wind, or any other great romantic classic you might think of. The setting is desolate and unforgiving, which casts a dark shadow over the events, and the eerie and unusual characters give it a bizarre feeling. There are certainly no princesses or handsome princes, in fact none of the characters have charm or beauty, yet the devotion and agony of unrequited love has never been expressed with more passion and beauty than it is in this book. Have you loved or lost recently? Than this is the one for you.
It begins in a desolate farm town, we don't know where for sure, but it's during the 1930s so they all looked the same: bleak. "If you walk along the main street on an August afternoon there is nothing whatsoever to do. The largest building, in the very center of the town, is boarded up completely." A love triangle is the theme, and the first of the three points is Miss Amelia. She's a leading lady so mannish and cruel she can hardly be called a heroinne. The object of her affection is her homosexual, hunchbacked cousin Lymon, a pathetic little man who limps into town begging Amelia for food and shelter. In spite of his deformed appearance, rancid rotting teeth, and the fact that they're close blood relatives, she falls desperately in love with Lymon. Their relationship is so queer that the townspeople speculate about them, suspecting the hunchback of blackmailing her.
For a time, Lymon is content to let Amelia lavish attention on him: she's the richest lady in town. Soon, however, he falls in love himself, with none other than Amelia's own ex-husband Henry Macy: a real scumbag who's come out of jail after committing armed robbery. Now he's back in town and looking for a fight.
The book's title comes from a cafe which Miss Amelia operates while her love is in bloom. As it withers, the cafe closes, and the town becomes a wasteland again. It all sounds so depressing, yet some parts are actually funny: the charming provincial nature of the illiterate peasants whose noble lives are lightened by gossiping about the peculiar romance gives it some empathy, while the final conflict gives it tension and drama.
Carson McCullers had a shattered romance of her own. She and he husband both had clandestine, homosexual lovers as well as frequent problems with alcoholism. The pain of love one doesn't want gives the story a haunting, miserable sort beauty. It's short, inexpensive, and totally unforgettable.

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