Thieves and Rascals by Mavis Gallant – a post for the #1956Club

A few months ago, I wrote about the first six stories in The Cost of Living, an excellent collection of early pieces by the Canadian writer Mavis Gallant. (If you missed it, you can read it by clicking on the link here.) The post covered stories from 1951 to 1955; something that brings us rather conveniently to 1956, which is the subject of Simon and Karen’s latest ‘Club’ week (more details here). So, for my contribution to the #1956Club, I’m going to focus on one story from the collection: Thieves and Rascals, which first appeared in Esquire magazine in 1956.

Gallant is particularly perceptive on the emptiness of suburban domesticity, the type of stifling, loveless marriage depicted in Mad Men and the novels of Richard Yates. It’s something that comes through in Thieves and Rascals, a story featuring Charles and Marian Kimber, a married couple who live in New York.

As the story opens, Charles – an emotionally-absent lawyer – learns that his teenage daughter, Joyce, is being sent home from her respectable boarding school for spending a weekend in a hotel with a young man. Rather than expressing anger or concern for his daughter’s welfare, Charles seems more puzzled than anything else, particularly as he considers Joyce to be rather plain and gauche.

His mind could not construct the image of stolid Joyce, in the moccasins, the tweed skirt, the innocent sweaters, registering (as she surely had) in a shabby hotel on a side street in Albany. He wondered not so much how it had happened, but that it had happened at all. Joyce, as far as he knew, didn’t know any young men, except, perhaps, the brothers of her classmates. And why, he wondered, would any young man, even the most callow and inexperienced, pick Joyce? There are so many girls her age who are graceful, pretty, knowing, and who have weekends here and there written all over them. (p. 117)

Marian, by contrast to her husband, is fragile, brittle and highly strung. Somewhat unusually for a married woman in the mid-1950s, Marian has a career; but as a successful high-end model, she is objectified by men, admired for her undoubted poise and beauty above any other qualities.

News of Joyce’s indiscretion reignites memories for Marian – reflections on an impetuous relationship from her own adolescence, something that caused a rift within the family at the time. As Marian begins to talk about the situation with Charles, a mistrust of men is revealed – both in general and more specifically with Charles himself.

They can’t own up. They can’t be trusted. They can’t face things. Not at that age. Not at any age. I think it’s getting a little far to say you can’t trust any man, at any age, said to Charles. I don’t know any, said his wife. Well, he said, there’s me for instance, when she did not reply, he said: well it’s a fine time to find out you don’t trust me. The question isn’t whether I do or not, said Marion. I have to trust you. I mean, I live with you, and keep the thing on the tracks, or I don’t. So then, of course, I have to trust you. (p.124)

This development offers a revealing picture of the couple’s relationship. Charles, with his lack of emotional investment in the marriage, isn’t terribly good at empathising or reading the nuances of the situation. (Or maybe he does understand the true meaning of what is being said but simply chooses not to acknowledge it.) There is also a mistress in the background, a secretary named Bernice, whose company Charles finds straightforward and ‘restful’. Bernice, for her part, places few demands on Charles, seemingly content with the two evenings a week she spends cooking dinner for him at her apartment.

As the story draws to a close, we sense that Marian is fully aware of the limitations of her marriage, a common situation for American women in this period. (I couldn’t help but be reminded of Mad Men’s Betty Draper at this point.) And Charles? His primary concern seems to be the avoidance of any kind of ‘scene’ with Marian, stressing her upcoming modelling commitments as a reason to stem the tears…

Along with several other stories in this collection, Thieves and Rascals leaves the reader with much to consider as they try to read between the lines and imagine what might happen next. This is another richly textured story from this marvellous collection, lovingly reissued by NYRB Classics (personal copy).

32 thoughts on “Thieves and Rascals by Mavis Gallant – a post for the #1956Club

  1. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead

    Lovely review — I now feel inspired to actually read one of those Gallant short story collections that’s been sitting on my shelf (or I would if I could find them! most of my books are still packed until I finish my move). As I was reading your review I was thinking “Don & Betty Draper;” glad to see my thought wasn’t too far afield!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      To be honest, this (together with Gallant’s Paris Stories) had been sitting on my shelves for several years before I got around to picking it up. Now I kind of wish I had done so a lot sooner! This era is one of my favourites in literature and culture in general, so the Mad Men reference seems particularly apt.

      Reply
  2. madamebibilophile

    This does sound excellent, and tackling lots of big themes in a short space. 1956 suggests a period on the cusp of change to me and it sounds as if this story picks up on that perfectly.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think that’s a feature of her wok. She manages to hint at or touch on quite a lot in the space of just a few pages. There’s quite a lot going on under the surface – emotions buried in the characters’ backstories, if that makes some kind of sense?

      Reply
  3. heavenali

    What a lovely read for the 1956 club, the more I hear about Mavis Gallant the more I am sure I would like her writing. This particular story sounds excellent, with characters fully fleshed out and explored in some detail.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Luckily, I still have one Richard Yates novel left to read – Cold Spring Harbor, which I’ve been saving for a while. Then it’ll be rereads only, or more Mavis Gallant!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, absolutely! Another writer might have focused much more on Joyce, but I loved the way Gallant used her transgression as a way of exploring the parents’ marriage.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think she’s great, but you might feel differently especially as some of her stories reminded me of Richard Yates! There’s bound to be something available to read online, probably from the The New Yorker archives. :)

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Well, that’s one of the interesting things about this story. Everything we hear about Joyce is filtered through other people, particularly Charles who seems surprised that any boy would find her attractive. We never actually meet Joyce in person. So, there’s a whole other story to be unravelled there, especially as the headmistress considers her to be so ‘reliable’…

      Reply
  4. Richard

    I haven’t read anything by Gallant that I can recall even though I’ve often wondered about her NYRB Paris Stories collection. Still, that excerpt about the father’s reaction to his daughter’s tryst is so offputting (i.e. character-wise) that I can see how his relationship with his wife might make for an intense read given what you say about Gallant’s perceptiveness.

    Reply
  5. Radz Pandit

    Mavis Gallant sounds terrific Jacqui. Both Paris Stories and Varieties of Exile have been sitting on my shelves for quite a while now, time to rectify that. I am intrigued by the Mad Men comparison, loved that show.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, me too. I’m a big fan. You’d like Gallant, I’m sure. The Paris Stories sound excellent too. Marcie at Buried in Print has been working her way through all of Gallant’s short stories over the past year, so there’s loads more about her over there if you need any more persuading!

      Reply
  6. 1streading

    What a great idea to read a short story published that year. As I’m sure I said before, I do like the sound of Gallant and she is now definitely on the list!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Excellent! Yes, I think this might be my strategy going forward with these Clubs. Sometimes it can be easier to find a short story than a complete book, especially if you want to read something ‘different’ to the norm!

      Reply
  7. buriedinprint

    Even though I am a fan, generally speaking, and there are many stories she’s written which I think warrant rereading, this one in particular made me thinking of rereading as soon as I finished because I felt like the final couple of pages kind of slanted my understanding/receptivity of what had come before. Not in a O’Henry twist kind of way, just with a subtle reminder that relationships were even *more* complex than they’d seemed to be (although it was clear from the start that things were complicated). I’m so enjoying your discovery of these stories. Here I have, just this week, finished my last of the stories in my project, and you’re already tempting me into rereading the whole lot of them. LOL

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! I’m glad you’re enjoying my discovery of these stories – they really are very good indeed. The thing that strikes me about this one is Marian’s underlying mistrust of men, something that’s been festering away since the incident from her adolescence. I agree, it puts a different complexion on her relationship with Charles. As with many of Gallant’s stories, there’s a lot that’s left unsaid – stuff for the reader to unpack and reflect on as they work through the narrative. Plus, as I’ve alluded to in the comments above, there’s a whole other story going on with Joyce that we never really get to see. Why did she skip school to spend a weekend with a young man? Has she been affected by the difficulties in her parents’ relationship? How much does she know about this? It’s fascinating to consider…

      Reply
  8. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

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