Monday, September 3, 2012

Appreciations: Irwin Shaw’s ‘Girls in Their Summer Dresses’

“When I think of New York City, I think of all the girls on parade in the city. I don’t know whether it’s something special with me or whether every man in the city walks around with the same feeling inside him, but I feel as though I’m at a picnic in this city. I like to sit near the women in the theatres, the famous beauties who’ve taken six hours to get ready and look it. And the young girls at the football games, with the red cheeks, and when the warm weather comes, the girls in their summer dresses.”—Irwin Shaw, “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses,” from Short Stories: Five Decades (1978)

Not having read this classic short story by Irwin Shaw (1913-1984) in over three decades, I was surprised to rediscover that it is set in November. But such is the power of the title—which memorably evokes the intensity of male desire, out and about in the eye-candy factory of Greenwich Village on an early Sunday afternoon—that it overwhelms memory.

This story was published in The New Yorker in February 1939, but I can’t find a single detail which would date it then as opposed to now. There are no references to current events, no now-quaint technology, no dialogue with contemporary slang. Shaw simply lets you eavesdrop on Michael and Frances Loomis on a deceptively beautiful day that ends with ugly truths.

“The Girls in Their Summer Dresses” can be read rapidly, largely because of its heavy use of dialogue, in one not-very-long sitting, so “slice of life” is a better description of its method than “plot.” Yet, when the story is over, the entire stable axis of the Loomises’ world has shifted.

Years ago, a guy at a party related to me how his wife would spot his eye wandering every time an attractive woman passed by. “And guess what? You’re the beneficiary of all that pent-up sexual energy,” he said he rationalized to her.

One imagines his wife nodding knowingly and smiling in amusement. It’s not unlike the reaction of Frances in only the third paragraph into Shaw’s work, as she has to warn her husband that he’ll break his neck looking at a woman as they cross Fifth Avenue.

Before long, we begin to gather that Frances is the more ardent one in the relationship. She kisses him on the tip of the ear; he protests, albeit mildly, that they’re on Fifth Avenue.  She talks about her plan for the day, which, unlike most of their time together, will involve just the two of them; he mumbles one word, “Sure”—not enough to disguise the fact that he’s been distracted by yet another woman, this one a “hatless girl with the dark hair, cut dancer-style like a helmet.”

This is the seismic break in the story. When Frances speaks next, it’s “flatly.” Now, she is no longer giggling indulgently at a human weakness of the man she loves; he’s demonstrated that he’s incorrigible. From this point on, the dialogue shows how this relationship, having sustained one collision with an iceberg, gradually but inexorably opens ever more gaping holes. Adverbs take on more meaning because of their spare use throughout. At the start of the tale, the couple walk “lightly,” the way a husband and wife still in the first bloom of love do; but after their bickering starts, they join hands “consciously.” Within minutes, it seems, the bloom has fallen off their five-year marriage, and it will take a conscious effort from now on that they will find harder to maintain in order to keep it alive.

Michael and Frances drink at a bar in an attempt to ignore the chasm that has opened between them, but the alcohol only spurs them to more threatening candor. Michael rationalizes, even wallows in, his penchant for ogling; Frances presses him progressively harder to acknowledge the full implications of this. It’s like the lyric from the Carly Simon song “No Secrets”: “You always answer my questions, but they don’t always answer my prayers.”

At last, Michael admits, under Frances’ prodding, that yes, he would “like to be free,” and that, at some point, he’s “going to make a move.” I suspect many of my readers have observed moments in the lives of couples they know when they suddenly realize that there’s an irreparable rent in the relationship. These two admissions by Michael represent such moments in this story.

Not unlike John O’Hara, Shaw made his fortune in midlife with sprawling novels that lent themselves to pulp Hollywood treatments, such as the films The Young Lions and Two Weeks in Another Town and the miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man and Top of the Hill. “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses” represents an alternative, better route: sharply observed short fiction. (PBS adapted it for a 1981 episode in its “Great Performance” series, with Jeff Bridges and Carol Kane playing the couple.)

In a post for the blog “The Reading Life,” Los Angeles Times book critic David Ulin analyzed the shattering impact of this “small, grim classic, a story so simple and subtle that it feels like life”:

“Michael and Frances might be any of us, and the easy, insinuating way their comfortable back-and-forth devolves into something more elemental resonates with the force of argument, of people not so much completing as complicating each other -- no matter what the weather or the time of year.”

I can’t think of a story that better captures youthful love turned suddenly fragile on the brink of middle-aged torpor and disillusionment, featuring a male animal who causes lasting pain in service to a desire that is as evanescent as summer itself.

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