BASS 2010 – The Valetudinarian by Joshua Ferris

As I read through this story, I kept wondering how it was in The New Yorker. It just doesn’t seem like a New Yorker story. It seemed like a 30’s screwball comedy – no, it doesn’t, well, yes, it does, except the only reason I say that is because there’s a snippet of conversation in the book about 30’s screwball comedies and how they didn’t have to say F-this and F-that every other minute and here’s this 30’s screwball comedy about an old man, a Russian prostitute, and Viagra, which is also a bit incongruous with a 30’s screwball comedy.

I had a lot of problems with the way this was written. Well, no, I didn’t have problems with it – I found it easy to read and enjoyable – but I don’t understand how this is a “best” story. It was rather routine, actually – of course his buddy gets him a hooker for his birthday, of course he takes the pill, of course he’s happy about it, so while it was a fun romp to read, it was fun because it was quite predictable once the 30’s screwball comedy vibe was set (which took a while). This is the second story I’ve read in this volume where it seemed like it was two stories, one that was exposition and set-up, and then the actual story. Maybe I’ve been reading too much flash. Or maybe this whole get into the story immediately and grab the reader from the first line is only required from neophytes, and the Joshual Ferrises of this world can do whatever they want.

There’s only a page of true exposition before we get to the birthday, which is when the action starts. The kids call. Then he calls for a pizza. Then the hooker shows up, which is when things start to happen. So it wasn’t really that long, it just seemed long, but I think maybe that was the point, the interminable calls from the kids and the grandchild showcasing his life, that this is what he’d been waiting all day for, and he harps on his health knowing the kid doesn’t want to hear it and no one really listens to him anyway.

I don’t know, this is where I start to worry about my “taste level” to use the infamous phrase from Project Runway. I thought this was a fair story. Not a New Yorker story. Not a BASS story. There was nothing surprising in it. It was mildly entertaining at best. What the hell is wrong with me? Let me revise: I wouldn’t say there was nothing surprising in it – I was surprised he took a casual attitute towards whether the hooker accepted his offer of financial help or not, that he was content once he made the offer, and he let go of her hand to wave at Mrs. Z – so he wasn’t a complete fool. And the ending was kind of nice, except it’s that wrap-it-all-up-upbeat kind of ending that’s not common in well-ranked stories these days.

I’ve read elsewhere the ending is almost identical to another end-with-a-baseball-memory story, I forget which, and it’s possibly an homage to the other author (I have to make note of it and read it). Maybe I’m just not well-read enough to appreciate this.

The POV is something I can learn from, I think. Starts off very general, clearly an omnisicent 3rd narrator, lots of psychic distance, a wide shot as it were. Then it moves in to details and becomes 3rd person Arty. And just when the hooker scene is getting interesting, it shifts to Mrs. Zegerman and her snoopvision. After his somewhat miraculous recovery from his fall and heart whatever, they really share the POV, the most poignant paragraph for me being, not Arty’s decision to take the blue pill, but Mrs. Zegerman giving up her fantasy of being a hero and tending to him for a year as he slowly recovers, probably with hopes of becoming Mrs. Arty, all blown apart when he leaps from the car without his cane. Then he sees her later in the car, crying, which felt false to me, how could he see that far? The end goes back to a wide shot, clear narrator info about the hairline fracture in the baseball game. This makes very clear the difference between character, narrator, and author – the author isn’t really there at all, the narrator is clearly distinguished from the characters of Arty and Mrs. Zegerman. But… while I liked it, I didn’t see greatness in it. I saw Eclectica rather than The New Yorker (which is not a swipe at Eclectica, they’ve pubished some really good stories, but they aren’t The New Yorker). Which gets back to my dubious taste level. Ay.

4 responses to “BASS 2010 – The Valetudinarian by Joshua Ferris

  1. Pingback: BASS 2010 – Final Thoughts, and what’s next: 2011 PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories « A Just Recompense

  2. I think you hit the nail on the head with this story.

    I, too, am making my way through BASS 2010, and your commentaries have been of great help.

    I was left scratching my head after this one. The ending made no sense, and there were paragraphs toward the end that seemed to try to “explain” the situation into its climax, instead of it being a natural progression through ACTION.

    For me the story just didn’t work. However, there were poignant moments. Mrs. Zegerman’s affection for the narrator. And then that mirrored perfectly the narrator’s affection for his family, who seem, according to Arty, have abandoned him on his death bed, so Arty says.

    But with people like Arty, they tend to exaggerate. So I wonder if the family was more hiding from him because he was just so stinking annoying.

    But the story had some good moments, and I’m glad I read it. But in the end, do I get that WOW feeling, like this is a great story? NO! Not at all.

    • Hi, DP, always glad to have more company reading. Are you a student, a writer, or just someone who likes to read?

      When my online workshop (Zoetrope) read this story, the reaction was the same – it’s fun, it’s nice, but not a best story of the year. What I got from it, however, was the impetus to read his novel, Then We Came To The End which, for me, was also a mixed ride but by the end I loved it and was very glad to have read it.

  3. I meant to write: ” … Mrs. Zeberman’s affectionf or Arty. And then that mirrored perfectly Arty’s affection for his family…” (I meant to write “Arty,” not “narrator.”

    Sorry about the confusion.

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