Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Selected Stories of Patricia Highsmith: Mermaids on the Golf Course

What are the degrees of fantasy? When is it merely the willing suspension of disbelief, and when is it delusion on much grander scale, a coping mechanism for day-to-day life? In this collection of short stories, Patricia Highsmith’s characters all deal with self-made fantasy, forcing themselves to believe something that they know, perhaps not so deep down, is not true.

“Craig knew he would have to talk to Richard Prescott as if he believed what he was saying. Craig did. He prepared himself as if he were an actor. He emoted.”
— “Where the Action Is”

A woman has all her dead pets sent to the taxidermist so that she can display them in her garden, as though they have never left her, and is puzzled when her husband does not want them featured in the newspaper. Another woman, after little success in her dating life, gets a thrill out of being the beautiful woman at the bar, waiting for a man who will never come.

A man goes to home of his dying acting mentor, where a non-stop party with all the other “disciples” goes on for weeks. Another man witnesses a boy shot on the streets of Quetzalan, Mexico, and is baffled to find that not only is the boy viewed as “very bad,” but that no one wants him to report it.

Many of the eleven stories made me question what was real and what was a product of the character’s imagination, and all made for interesting character studies. Each person struggles with what they know is true, what they want to be true, and how they are expected to behave around others. Perhaps this is most apparent in the title story:

“Minderquist had been going to indulge in a little fantasy about mermaids on the golf course, but he noticed a murmur among the assembled, as if the journalists were consulting one another. Mermaids who graced the links and flipped their tails to send the balls to a more convenient position for the golfer, Minderquist had been going to say, but suddenly three people put questions to him at once.”

Even while reading the rest of the stories in the collection, I kept going back to the ending of this one, trying to make sense of it. It didn’t hit me until the end of the book, and it’s one of Highsmith’s best psychologic explorations. I thought that maybe The Black House would be my favorite out of these past five books, but Mermaids may just edge out as the winner.

Should you stumble across the entire volume, The Selected Stories of Patricia Highsmith, I would recommend picking it up, even if you’re not sure if all the sections will appeal to you. Graham Greene writes an excellent forward, and each section provides great examples of the different varieties of suspense fiction. However, I’d also suggest that you perhaps not read all 725 pages at once, as I did. I’m used to Highsmith’s macabre sensibility, and even I found it a bit overwhelming at times. The next book I read will need to be a great deal more fluffy.

Book # 11/52
Read as part of a 700+ page collection of stories, but this book was published on its own in 1985.

Photo by Tyson Habein.

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.

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