#950: Little Fictions – Four Corners, Volume 1: ‘Barber, Barber, Shave a Pig’ (1937) by Theodore Roscoe

Another tales of small town Americana from Theodore Roscoe, his time focussing on the effects of a crime on one man’s standing in the tiny community of Four Corners, the fictional town in upstate New York

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere when writing about these stories, the impressive thing about the imagined citizenry of Roscoe’s milieu is how under the skin of small town folk he gets without having to resort to grandstanding, or overtly and tediously minute examination. Roscoe understands the ways small communities work, from his establishing the role of each of the townsfolk mentioned when discussing the potential for losing face in ‘Frivolous Sal’ (1937) to the sense of a collective morality about which everyone is expected to gather. The ease with which ‘wrong’ behaviour sees someone castigated and isolated without the need for explicit statement is a worm which crawls beneath Roscoe’s light-as-a-feather prose, and ‘Barber, Barber. Shave a Pig’ (1937) brings that home with the same magnificent simplicity that he has already wrought elsewhere.

As the title suggests, this is the story of two barbers: the quiet, reserved Willie Updyke, who has lived in Four Corners all his life, and the larger-than-life Anton Grunner, who came to the town from New York eight years ago, bought Willie out of his business and has established “such a popularity as Willie, in a lifetime, never commanded”. Worse, having bought Willie out of his concern, Grunner then “hired him back with the large philanthropy of someone allowing a bungling old servant to remain on the premises” and has proceeded, by means fair and foul, to bully the unassertive Willie ever since. “When Grunner talked, everybody listened”, even to the point that Grunner, perpetually shaving himself in the mirror of the barbershop, can hold forth and put into words what others in the town might be fearful of saying — and, indeed, becomes even more popular for saying it and setting the standard for others to line up behind.

Which is especially bad when what they’re lining up behind is a belief in Willie Updyke’s cowardice.

“I bit a dog groomer once.”

I’ll save the details for your own discovery, but the facts remain, broadly, that Willie acted in a way that many, most, view as cowardly, and we open with Grunner boldly holding forth on the matter while Willie struggles against the barrage to even convince customers to sit in his chair. Mule Lickette — and one advantage of reading these stories so close together is seeing the same faces recurring, especially when named with a vibrancy that rivals Arthur Conan Doyle’s memorable sobriquets for minor characters — might be willing to throw a little sympathy business Willie’s way, but the other customers lining up on this cold November day manage not to see him or to hear his calls of “Next!”, unwilling to “chance [their] neck with a guy so nervous he can’t…” well, you’ll have to read it and find out what Willie Updyke can’t do, but your heart goes out to him.

As a study in bravery, and what constitutes such, Roscoe has written here a piquant and trenchant piece that is all the more horrible for how relatable the stakes are: if, as the adage goes, bravery really is being afraid and doing it anyway, the sense of what is to be lost — that which is feared — is compressed beautifully into the blank eyes and unheeding ears of the men who populate the shop that morning, with the act of sitting in a barber’s chair almost heroic enough to make you want to punch the air. Of course it’s easier to think of bravery in bigger terms, like something by Hemingway, or like a man chasing a killer into the night, but Willie Updyke’s cowardice and the act of bravery by which he might reassert his position in the society that shuns him is a beautiful distillation because of how minute the stakes feel and so how much more warmly we can clutch them to our own fearful breast.

Inside of this is also a study in contrasts: a contrast of chins, of haircuts, of manner around the chair — Roscoe typifying his combatants in the language that means most to them — but also of self-perception, of success for one man meaning failure for another, one’s grand confidence causing the other the shrink away in bitter self-reproach. And even in their conduct towards each other does Roscoe find a way to cleave them apart: the laconic Willie hates Anton Grunner, is made nervous and sick simply by the man’s presence, where the grandiose Dutchman Grunner, all blunt f‘s and European w‘s (“The Undertaker vants a barber at his parlour right avay…”), will wait until Willie’s Self-esteem is “inwardly and publicly demolished” before “defending him against the community’s scorn” like some “munificent bestower of alms”.

Willie Updyke’s stomach was a hard green apple under his belt, an indigestible lump of cold despair. He couldn’t run, back out or hide. He could only stand there ignored beside his ignored barber’s chair, neck cloth dangling, scissors out of work, despised, self-conscious and miserable…his whole life that lay around him in failure — Zero.

We have maybe 9,000 words here to be brought up to speed on Willie’s situation, for a mystery at the core of the event that has seen him fall from grace to present itself, and for Willie’s act of bravery to find sustenance in the soil of Grunner’s big-hearted mockery. Magnificent bullies in fiction have come more elaborate, and with more numerous crimes to their name, but surely few have done so much in as little space as Anton Grunner: brow-beating, cajoling, then solicitous and carefree, offering with one hand and then refusing to take back with the other since his kindness is, in its own way, a form of criticism. If you’re writing something and want to communicate what an arsehole one of your characters is, you should study the technique of Anton Grunner.

“The paperwork took ages.”

Roscoe, though, doesn’t let the contrasts stop there. Yes, he is writing a tale of one man’s attempt at redemption, had he only the gumption to stand up and pull it off, but he’s also writing a sly and subtle piece of detective fiction, in which the smallest clue — almost the smallest clue possible in the genre, though one that has seen many a criminal punished in reality as well as fiction — is swamped amidst the barrage Willie Updyke must endure. This, the third tale about Four Corners, is the first time we’ve seen Roscoe present both a crime and the solution for it in this setting, and, as elsewhere, the clash of different intentions is tidily handled as the various threads are neatly connected. It won’t stagger you with its complexity, but it may surprise you how clear a picture of the people involved you emerge with, and how keenly the injustice of the situation has gotten under your skin come the end.

It also culminates with a pretty good action sequence — albeit, in keeping with the shrink-wrapped focus, one that unfolds over only a couple of square feet of floorspace — with razors flashing “keen edged [and] murderous…[like] lightning that would abolish what it touched”, the intolerable pressure finally uncorking before crushing poor Willie and the eventual answers, never imagined, come into the light. I don’t know if the final line is quite as heroic as Roscoe imagines, but after the tour de force he’s just guided us through you’ll hopefully be willing to forgive him. And, in a fickle place like Four Corners, with that collective morality suddenly shown a new target at which to aim itself, it feels oddly fitting. How this guy isn’t better known is beyond me.


The Four Corners stories by Theodore Roscoe

Volume 1:

‘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)

Volume 2:

2 thoughts on “#950: Little Fictions – Four Corners, Volume 1: ‘Barber, Barber, Shave a Pig’ (1937) by Theodore Roscoe

    • I really hate bullies, and the piquancy of Roscoe’s observations here struck home — the subtle little shifts in attitude, the way a man can drown on dry land in desperation. Little touches like these really enhance the tiny nature of the story he’s telling, and make it feel like some grand canvas thing as epic as the Battle of Waterloo. Guy was a genius.


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