“From the stories he had heard from other young Americans in Paris, it had never occurred to Tibbell that he would have to face so many nights of loneliness and vague, unformed yearning once he had established himself in the city. But he was shy with girls and clumsy with men and he saw now that shyness and clumsiness were exportable articles that passed from country to country without tax or quota restrictions and that a solitary man was as likely to find himself alone and unremarked in Paris as in New York. Each night, after a silent dinner with only a book for companion, Tibbell, with his neat American haircut, his uncreased, neat Dacron suit, his naïve, questing, blue, polite American eyes, would go from one crowded terrasse of St. Germain to another, drinking as little as he dared, waiting for the one brilliant night when he would be noticed by some glorious, laughing band of young people who, with the legendary freedom of the capital, would seize upon him, appreciate him, sweep him along with them in their expeditions among the joyous tables of the Flore, the Epi Club, the Brasserie Lipp and out to the gay and slightly sinful inns in the smiling green countryside beyond Paris.
“But the one brilliant night never arrived.”—American novelist and short-story master Irwin Shaw (1913-1984), “Love on a Dark Street,” in Short Stories: Five Decades (1978)
In a prior post, I wrote about the classic story “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses.” But that much-anthologized bit of short fiction hardly encapsulates the full achievement of Irwin Shaw. The short story quoted above, written nearly a quarter century after “Girls,” gives as poignant a picture as I can think of a young person alone in a city and aching hopelessly for love. (The title alone was evocative and haunting enough to do double duty as the name for his 1965 collection of short stories written over the prior decade.)
In a foreword to a later edition of the “Five Decades” story collection, the late critic Alfred Kazin wrote of Shaw’s “inability to separate himself from a particular time.” What was meant as an appreciation comes off as a half-apology. No, in fact, the emotions that Shaw depicts so skillfully are universal, crossing entire ages, for all searchers mentally marooned out of their comfort zone, longing for an emotional anchor.