A great writer died in 1984 and hardly anybody noticed. He was famous three different times during his career, lived life to the fullest, but was quickly forgotten. He wrote two short stories that will likely remain among America’s best, and perhaps one novel, but is, nonetheless, disappearing from the literary landscape quickly.
I discovered Irwin Shaw on my honeymoon in Philadelphia in1966. At the time my wife and I were staying in a stately mansion near Germantown, compliments of my grandmother’s employers who were on vacation in Europe. Following a trend that would continue for the remainder of our married life, my wife went off to bed at ten o’clock while I stayed up late reading. On this memorable night I remember shuffling into the doctor’s library (he was a prominent eye surgeon in the city) and selecting a book of short stories to read. With a sigh of contentment I curled up on a plush leather sofa and leafed through the volume while listening to the rhythmic beat of a grandfather clock ticking steadily in the hallway. I thought it was nice to have this kind of money and to live in such a manner. I hoped to still be doing it in my later years (ultimately, not to be).
I chose “The Eighty-Yard Run” by Irwin Shaw, and was immediately captivated by the opening sentence: “The pass was high and wide and he jumped for it, feeling it slap flatly against his hands, as he shook his hips to throw off the halfback who was diving at him.” The story gripped me, enveloped me like a spell, and I followed the tale of this handsome athlete, Christian Darling, who married the beautiful girl, only to realize, as his life unfolded, that that fateful day on the football field would be the best there ever was, and the dreams and expectations he harbored in his youth would never come to fruition. Unbeknownst to me, on that night I was also peering into the script of my own future, a fate little imagined, in which my wife would assume the same vaguely annoyed expression as Christian’s wife, as time passed, an omen signaling the end of a marriage that had been my foundation for so many years.
Art imitates life, as they say, and fate moves relentlessly onward.
Irwin Shaw was born and raised in New York City. From an early age he wrote short stories and played sports, two endeavors that would continue for the rest of his life. He only married once but had numerous affairs. He was very much a man’s man: strong, ruggedly handsome, tough enough so that Hemingway didn’t want to challenge him in the boxing ring. But his prose was well thought out and mellifluous, and he defined himself as a writer first and foremost.
His initial period of fame began during the late 1930’s and early ’40’s when his short stories—published in such notable magazines as Esquire and The New Yorker—brought him something of a cult following. He then entered World War II as a warrant officer, an experience which subsequently allowed him to pen his greatest novel, THE YOUNG LIONS. For a while it was considered one of the four great American war novels to come out of that horrible conflict, but its position dropped somewhat with the passage of time. He made another comeback—his third grasp of fame in one lifetime—with the publication in 1970 of RICH MAN, POOR MAN, which was turned into a popular television series. Success allowed him to live where he wished, and he chose Paris and Switzerland during the last twenty-five years of his life. He was a football player in his youth but became more interested in tennis and skiing during the later years. He was lucky enough to die in a hospital in Davos, Switzerland, looking out through the window at the gorgeous Swiss mountains he had come to love so much over the latter portion of his life.
Irwin was a playwright, novelist, and short story writer, and was probably best at the short story. His most famous play, BURY THE DEAD, was an antiwar drama which brought him considerable attention in New York City. For a while he considered playwriting to be his métier, but none of his succeeding plays reached the same level of popularity. After the war—he never engaged in combat but drove around in a jeep collecting information—he penned THE YOUNG LIONS, which traces the lives of three men, two American and one German, and the changes that this great conflict had on each. Altogether he wrote twelve novels in total, of varying quality. I remember particularly enjoying VOICES OF A SUMMER DAY, which I found to be insightful, poignant, and engaging, and NIGHT WORK, about a hotel clerk who discovers $100,000 in a dead customer’s room, and decides to take the money and run. When he discovers who owns the money, his life becomes more precarious.
Besides “The Eighty-Yard Run,” Shaw is known for his short stories, “The Girls in their Summer Dresses” and “Sailor off the Bremen.” I have three superb stories of his, however, that I would like to recommend to everyone. First is “Mixed Doubles,” which involves a woman playing tennis with her husband against another couple and who muses during the game about what a wonderful man she has married and how lucky she is to have him. However, the husband keeps screwing up during the game, reminding her of his numerous faults and how she has silently put up with them all these years. In the end she begins to wonder if she should even bother staying with him any longer.
Secondly is “The Inhabitants of Venus,” an eerie story about a man on a ski trip who recognizes someone who once tried to murder him in the most cold-blooded fashion right before the war. He decides he has no choice but to take this man’s life somewhere at the top of the hill, and begins to plot how to do it. And, lastly, for a change of pace and a bit of humor, read “Whispers in Bedlam,” about a football player who has an ear operation and suddenly is able to hear so well that he can make out the plays called by the opposing team in their huddle. With this new gift, he emerges from being an incompetent buffoon to a superstar.
So there you have it. Some recommendations to check out at your local library. Go for it. You’ll be glad you did. Irwin Shaw would be very distressed if he knew that his work was being largely forgotten after his shuffling off this mortal coil.