I had intended to read and review the stories in Four Corners, Volume 1 (2015) — written for pulp story magazine Argosy between 1937 and 1941 — on Tuesdays last month, but was operating under a fatal misapprehension: that eponymous “Four” refers to the town, not the number of stories in the volume, of which there are five. Thankfully, August 2022 came to the rescue, and here we go,
First up is ‘He Took Richmond’ (1937), which quietly paints in the details of the town of Four Corners with all the skill for understatement that Roscoe had at his command:
Four Corners may not be as big as New York, but it has as much civic pride… Come off-season it’s pretty quiet, but we have our doings — barn dances over at the Grange, husking bees, meetings at Legion Hall over Clapp’s Feed Store to see about someday erecting a monument to the boys who went Over There. There’s the Armistice Day at Brockton, and ten of our boys parade, and the whole town goes over with them to see them do it — I mean, the whole town.
Straight away, from simple patterns of speech, sometimes rendered phonetically, you get a sense of the smallness of Four Corners, and the small-mindedness of its citizens who consider the old man Anecdote Jones a “disgrace” and a “public nuisance”. Jones hangs about outside the town’s garage-cum-gas station telling anyone who’ll listen — and a goodly few passers-through who aren’t listening at all — stories that border on the ridiculous, a favourite being the time General Grant entrusted him with a key mission during the American Civil War:
“‘Jonesey,’ he says to me — he allus calls me Jonesey, like him and me was equals — ‘Jonesey,’ he says, ‘I want you should take some boys up to that ‘ere pine knoll, an’ hang onter it,’ he says. ‘Hang onter it like a bulldog to a rott… You hold that pine knoll tonight an’ it means we’re in Richmond tomorrow,’ he says. ‘You do that, Jonesey, an’ it’ll be just like you took Richmond yourself.'”
Now, despite the “Johnny Rebs” coming and slowly sniping every man who was with him, Jones, out of bullets and with no support, did hold onto that pine knoll — fighting back an encroaching enemy until support was able to arrive. The only problem with his story? He can’t remember how he held them off despite being unarmed; when pressed on the matter, he becomes vague, as if genuinely distraught, and is able to offer no explanation. The men gathered at Lem’s garage mock him for the blatant lie he was trying to sell, worried that he’ll give the impression to out-of-towners that Four Corners “was a hick town” and then everyone jumps in their cars because today is the parade at Brockton and no-one — no-one — is going to miss that.
No-one except Jonesey, that is, whom no-one wants to put up with any more than is strictly necessary, so the old man is left behind and retires to his attic above the garage where his job is to “glu[e] patches on worn out inner tubes”. And so it’s just this delusional old man and the mechanic Johnny Lane, finishing up a tricky job before heading out, in situ when someone else rolls into Four Corners…someone who doesn’t take kindly to finding anyone in the town, and who ties both men up so that some malfeasance can be executed.
Of the plot from here I shall say no more, since an air of ignorance around proceedings is the best way to enjoy this type of narrative fiction, and therefore we’ll have to talk about Roscoe’s sentence-by-sentence writing, which is about as stellar here as you’ll find among the luminaries of the genre’s Golden Age. Of particular merit is the section where we are privy to Jones’ thoughts upon his waking up after having been rendered unconscious and tied up. The sense of befuddlement, and confusion which muddies his thinking even at the best of times, is expertly communicated, as is the sense of directionless rage he feels knowing that some wrong has been done without being able to draw any specifics to mind:
For what seemed a long time — the clock is slow for the old — he lay there in the stuffy dark, breathing heavily through his nose, blinking the pain from his eyelids, unable to rise because a huge hand seemed pressed across his mouth and his joints wouldn’t work…somewhere, something was wrong; everything had gone awry.
The story is filled in through a patchwork approach, each of the three perspectives understanding only so much that the reader is able to pull together ahead of them…in most cases. I especially love the passage from Johnny Lane’s perspective when he sees that Jones has found a way to observe what is happening below through a knot-hole:
An eye! Pale blue, shiny as a marble, glittering and angry as the Eye of Jehovah, looking straight down at him from the ceiling… The ferocity of that eye would have intimidated a tiger. They read the Bible in Four Corners, and Johnny Lane had never been quite as frightened in his life.
Elsewhere, lovely imagery — “The fat man folded his hands across his stomach as if he was afraid someone might steal it”, say, or that same man running for the garage door “like a swollen ferret for a squirrel’s nest” — rubs shoulders with some frankly absurdist notions that work all the more brilliantly for how sharp they contrast with the serious nature of what is unfolding before us. See the fight in which three people are involved, described thus:
For a moment, the three bodies interlocked in a writhing, twisted tangle, like one of those rolling, cyclone-formed mêlées that movie cartoonists denote by a swirl of lines with asterisks and exclamation points shooting out of them at impossible angles.
There’s something oddly comical, too, about the way the criminous scheme at the heart of this falls apart, a weirdly nightmarish giddiness at knowing a criminal is being hoisted but without the understanding at first of what could possibly be happening. And the answer is a pleasing one, that manages to answer all the questions involved…just before Roscoe hits you with a final line sting that had me tearing up a little and laughing at the same time. The use of repetition in the closing stages of this is perhaps the most brilliantly effective of all the ploys Roscoe plays, and once I was done I immediately went back and read the whole thing a second time to get a better appreciation of the mood he was establishing for the story he knew he was about to tell.
If you’ve only encountered Roscoe through the lurid hues of Murder on the Way! (1935) or the cacophonous absurdity of I’ll Grind Their Bones (1936), you might be surprised at just how movingly the man can write. The pulps produced cheap sensations by the yard, most of which is instantly dismissible, but Roscoe’s prose is precision-tooled in a way that only a few writers in a generation are ever likely to achieve — redolent with grace and toughness, piggybacking a literary bêtise (Jones dismissing the experience of those men who fought Over There, say) in a way that hits harder for the contrast it creates, giving the sense of ramshackle construction when in fact the threads running through his prose are steel pylons on which so much hangs. I had a feeling I was going to enjoy these stories; at first blush, it seems I’m in for a good month.
The Four Corners stories by Theodore Roscoe
‘He Took Richmond’ (1937)
‘Frivolous Sal’ (1937)
‘Barber, Barber, Shave a Pig’ (1937)
‘I Was the Kid with the Drum’ (1937)
‘Daisies Won’t Tell’ (1938)
‘Ghoul’s Paradise’ (1938)
‘The Man Who Hated Lincoln’ (1939)
‘There Are Smiles That Make You Happy’ (1939)
‘Stay As Sweet As You Are’ (1939)
‘Ghost on Lonesome Hill’ (1941)