The Four Corners stories by Theodore Roscoe, concerning mysterious and suspenseful happenings in the so-named town in northern NY, are legitimate masterpieces in setting and tone — and ‘There Are Smiles That Make You Happy’ (1939) is another beautiful example of the storyteller’s craft.
There is an ostensible mystery here — the reappearance of ‘Smiling’ Charlie Knight in the town after his apparent death in the battlefields of the First World War, and his immediate disappearance thereafter — but, since events are related through the eyes of an 11 year-old boy, the reader is doubtless wise to the solution long before the characters are. So what we have here is a mystery story about which there is very little mystery, leaving instead Roscoe’s superb evocation of sitting just outside full understanding in a small town where acquiring a full understanding of events is crucial:
Lacking radio and talkies, Four Corners had to make its own drama; looking back, I can see its citizens each playing a chosen part up to the hilt. Lives, otherwise dull, were, inspired by local gossip, minor intrigue. Commonplace phrases were garnished with a rhetoric as flossy as Spencerian writing. A funeral was a funeral in those days; a wedding was a wedding!
Roscoe negotiates expertly the triumvirate of Charlie Knight, the dentist Horace Danglers, and the young woman over whom the two appear to tussle, 19 year-old Mary Farwell (“I worshipped her as any small boy can worship a beautiful and quite unattainable lady…”). In something so simple as a walk down Main Street, Roscoe is able to overlay impressions, memories, and the timelessness of emotional connections, and takes us on a whistle-stop tour of the encounters these three shared before Charlie disappeared off to become a matinée idol in Canada and then signed up in the war and was posted overseas. Only with reports of Charlie dead does Mary consent to marry Horace and then, on the night before the wedding, our young narrator Bud Whittier visits Horace to get a tooth seen to…and Charlie Knight walks into the dentist’s parlour.
This is, naturally, big news. But not half as big as when — after Bud sees Charlie leaving Horace’s house, jumping into his car and driving away — Charlie apparently vanishes off the face of the earth: his car unable to travel along certain roads on account of snowfall and repairs, and unseen on other roads where reliable witnesses would have seen him pass.
“If he was drunk an’ had a smash-up, where’s the car? That snow was melted the next morning, so he wasn’t in any drift. He didn’t go across some field, because a big car like that would’ve bogged down in th’ mud. He didn’t drive into any woods, either, he’d have got jammed up in the timber. We’ve combed every roadside ditch an’ thicket around here, and looked in a lot of barnyards, figurin’ he might’ve pulled up in some old shed…[the car’s] gone just like it had melted with all that slush!”
The canny reader will wise up to what might have happened, and how the eponymous song plays into things — becoming anathema for certain denizens of Four Corners — plays out slowly almost as a background concern. What Roscoe’s real focus seems to be here is again a tidy pen portrait of living in small town Americana at a time when local people were all someone of significance, and how the events in which the world was caught up in would be felt with decidedly less seismic consequences than those things which were only the affair of Four Corners.
There’s also an undeniable sense of melancholy that outside events needed to have any effect on Four Corners at all, a sort of shaking-a-fist-at-the-world frustration when the war leaves the young men of the town broken, dazed, or dead in the corner of some foreign field…but this is only dimly understood by Bud, who is more wrapped up in quotidian concerns of peeking in through the keyhole of his father’s study in an attempt to get answers to questions closer to home. And even when the information is there to be grasped freely, Bud’s young mind is unable to parlay what he sees into the answers he wants, so cabbalistic and distant is the world occupied by the adults who surround him. As in ‘I Was the Kid with the Drum’ (1937), the desire for knowledge that the young evince will eventually result in the sorts of answers that such a mind could never countenance, leaving scars that are going to linger for a long time.
It’s an interesting high-wire of suspense that Roscoe walks here, because he drops enough pointers at a relatively early stage of the story to make it clear what’s happening, yet I found myself reading on in agony of suspense as Bud shuffles ever closer to a reckoning that simply has to come and is going to be horrible for him. And, sure enough, Roscoe hits you with a terrific smash, revealing the things you long-suspected while also showing a tighter design behind events that is hugely enjoyable for how imbricated everything is shown to have been. Much as Bud knows Four Corners and is caught unawares by events that have surrounded him, we have known what to expect and end up equally sucker-punched by a series of revelations that tie events up in unexpected and delightful ways.
It would be overstating things to suggest that these stories make necessary reading, but I’m impressed how, time and again, Roscoe is able to make such small matters feel like the shifting of continents, contrasting the minutiae of petty squabbles, intrinsic dislike, and confused impressions with grand scheme themes like love, fear, and redemption. I don’t know anyone else who juxtaposes these principles so cleanly and so effectively, but I’d love to find someone who could. And, in the meantime, these stories come recommended once again for how fully they fulfil their brief and add delightful bonuses on top. Wonderful stuff.
James Scott Byrnside: The story reveals a complexity I hadn’t considered. Granted, some of that complexity is because it was not clued, but a lot of it has to do with Roscoe’s ability to weave his tale with revelations at the proper time. His pitch-perfect sense of place (a constant in everything I’ve read from him) is here matched by the measurement of his plotting. The mystery is unravelled by adults, but it’s experienced by a child. This is terrific stuff.
The Four Corners stories by Theodore Roscoe