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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

A simple little story that opened the way

So much is going on right now, and this is not about any of it. This is about reading and writing, and it’s personal:

My lawyer son was up from Philadelphia last week. Late in his last afternoon I quit work early so we could spend some time, just us, out in the sunshine. We’ve always read together and he had his book, so I glanced at the shelf and pulled out The Middle-Aged Man on the Flying Trapeze. In there I saw “The Evening’s at Seven.” And I remembered.

I was a college kid on a year abroad and I was trying to write, to be clever and impressive — and this wasn’t going well at all — when I discovered James Thurber. He was a writer of short, mostly funny pieces from the 1920s through the 50s whose work Hemingway and other “serious” authors loved. I happened on a Thurber collection when I was poking around in the American Library in Vienna (I remember its bright-colored plastic chairs, in that somber old city). “The Evening’s at Seven” was in there, a short little story, not comedy but something else. Rereading it now, it came home that this was the one that opened the way — that showed how deeply  simple, clear, careful writing could go.

Thurber was a lot like us: confused by much of life, observant mostly of his own confusion. His writing seems casual, but he worked and worked on every piece. This one begins so simply: “It was a quarter to seven in the evening and it was dark and raining.” Leaving his darkened office for dinner at home as usual, a man calls for a taxi instead, and finds himself giving an old girlfriend’s address.

“It was dark in the room, and still raining outside,” he finds once he’s there. The plain words “dark” and “raining” deepen in meaning as they are repeated — and by the time the man leaves the woman’s apartment, a few minutes later, even though he has hardly said anything and nothing has really happened, something has.

“She went to the door with him looking lovely, and it was lovely and dark and raining outside and he laughed and she laughed and she was going to say something but he went out into the rain and waved back at her (not wanting to wave back at her) and she closed the door and was gone ... And now he was going home.”

For years after that as I started doing newspaper work I read all of Thurber I could find. I pored through a volume of letters where he shared how he would rewrite and rewrite, searching for precisely the right words, working for that relaxed simplicity. There were others whose work, for me, also pointed in this clarified direction — William Saroyan, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Hemingway. But more than any other it was “The Evening’s at Seven,” this simple little story, that spoke the lesson to the heart.

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