Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Needs More Sugar, Dahl!

Just before the holidays I read a collection of short stories by Roald Dahl. You remember him. He’s the man responsible for the legendary Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, The Witches, Fantastic Mr. Fox and many other imaginative feats of literature.

We all know he’s off the wall. His wackiness knows little bounds, if any. But even with his dark sense of humor taken into consideration, I must say that I found The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More a bit more alarming than charming. Actually, the story of Henry Sugar is the only one I can truly say I liked. No, I didn’t dislike the others, per se. Let’s say I questioned their entertainment value. I hope this doesn’t sound like some sort of politically correct, white-washing extremist. For I certainly don’t think they’re harmful, need to be censored or anything of the sort. It’s just that I found myself wide-eyed at the ultra-bitterness and proclivity of many of the characters to get away with being quite bad, if not evil. No, I’m not the type who thinks good must triumph in a story. But these seemed so different to me from the general moral tone of his other works.

And I know it’s not just me, for when I related my “concern” over one tale in particular to Bart, his father and sister one evening, they also winced. They then asked when Dahl wrote the stories - earlier in his body of work? As in prior to the more well-known books? I’ve looked it up. Perhaps he became more cynical than usual as time went on, for this collection is well after hits like Charlie, Peach and Fox by 7 - 16 years. Let me show you what I mean.

The story that disturbed everyone is The Swan. In it, a white trash boy and his equally uncouth friend go out to use the rifle he just received for his birthday. Supposed to be on an errand to get beer for his deadbeat father, they kill and string a number of birds for no reasons other than boredom and “sport.” They meet up with another boy - a studious, goody-goody type minding his own business by a lake. After verbally abusing him (with some shoving too), they decide how fun it would be to tie him up and let the train run over him. Peter (the victim) manages to escape death by rocking his head and such down into the gravel, allowing him to be just flat/far down enough that the train goes over him. Ernie and Raymond are sorely disappointed they didn’t get to watch him be murdered. They see a swan on the lake and decide to kill it. Again, for no good reason. Peter protests, both about killing the swan and that the lake is law-protected territory. Ernie and Raymond don’t care and shoot the swan in the head. They force Peter to fetch it. To mock his crying, Ernie says he’s a magic man and can make the swan fly again. Of course, what this really means is he cuts off the wings and ties them (with lots of blood mentioned) to Peter’s arms. Peter is then, at gunpoint, made to climb a tree and told to fly out over the lake. Yes, he is shot at for his reluctance. I won’t tell you what happens next in case you want to read the story yourself. But I will say that it’s “out there” and it doesn’t, in my opinion, justify the rest of the pointless bullying and violence.

In another story, The Hitchhiker (which involves Dahl as a character in his own story, by the way), a pick-pocket relishes his ability to never be caught - even at the expense of stealing from a policeman. Additionally, Dahl (as the character of himself) purposely and knowingly breaks the speeding law, racing his car just to see prove how fast it will go.

In The Boy Who Talked with Animals, we again see how cruel people can be to animals. And the ending (also “out there”) made me wonder as to the otherwise point of this crazy short story.

In The Mildenhall Treasure, we find nothing but greed and deceit. Comeuppance does occur to a degree, but someone also gets royally screwed who does not deserve it in the least.

The collection also includes A Piece of Cake. This is actually Dahl's first published work. Although I could see the “point” of this one, I did not like it much either. I’m not a “war story” kind of guy, so an account of his troubles as a World War II RAF pilot did not sit well with me. Especially his "dementia" in the hospital after his crash. Just a little more horrifying than I needed it to be. But it’s well written, yes. C. S. Forester is the one who encouraged Dahl on this one and made the publication happen, for the record.

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, however, is a cute story in a story in story in a story. Overall, it's about a man who develops the ability to see through playing cards. Just imagine being at a casino - gambling man Sugar certainly does. But unlike the other characters in the tales of this collection, he is not a despicable fellow and winds up using his “power” to do great good. It is, well, wonderful. I just don’t think it belongs in this dark collection.

That all said, take note of the top line on the cover. Another "deceitful" measure given the real nature of these tales, wouldn't you say? So, there you have it. Dahl actually left me with a bad taste in my mouth, outside the realm of his usual delightful darkness.

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