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Roast beef and eels and fleeting cruelties

March 12, 2009

eel1Meal-times are so rich with understated potential for conflict, it’s no wonder they appear so often in fiction. I’ve just been dipping into William Maxwell’s beautiful stories All the Days and Nights once again. I so love them.

One story, A Game of Chess, details an evening spent by Hugh and his wife Laura with Hugh’s unpleasant older brother Amos and his family and friends, at a New York hotel in the mid 60s.

The whole evening is tense with suppressed, unsaid things, or brief and brutal comments. Hugh hears Amos saying to Laura, “You must come out to Chicago. We’ve got a housing project with niggers and white people living together” – a remark ‘intended to beat Laura out of the bushes and perhaps test the timbre of her rising voice.’ But she doesn’t take the bait; ‘She was there to defend Hugh, not to argue.’

In a tiny moment that comes and goes beautifully quickly, Amos orders well done roast beef and Hugh, to draw a line between himself and Amos, orders eels (I can’t imagine how in 1960s America these little babies would be cooked but I’m pretty sure the gorgeous smoked Japanese variety wasn’t it … ugh).

But Hugh has also seen with dismay that his own wife ordered the same dish as Amos.

Later the eels come, and someone asks him if he is sure he wanted them.

Hugh answered with “Yes. I’ve never had eels before,” but he didn’t want them and he wished he could put the queer white slices in his pocket. He looked up when Aileen Murphy was served a roast squab, and wondered, Should I have had that?

I love the way scenes like this work, with all their little fleeting cruelties and unnoticed defiant gestures and small betrayals and mistakes. I must have another crack at doing this, in fiction, some time.

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