Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Dashiell Hammett’s “An Inch and a Half of Glory” was originally published in the June 10 & 17, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
It’s time for the summer fiction issue of The New Yorker, and it looks like an exciting package centered on “Crimes and Misdemeanors.” Besides the fiction, there is a screenplay by Cormac McCarthy and four true crime accounts (brief, personal accounts, so not as exciting as I had hoped) by George Pelecanos, David Peace, Roger Angell, and Joyce Carol Oates. There are also a couple of memoirs, one by Gary Shteyngart.
And of course, there’s the fiction. Here we have pieces by Jhumpa Lahiri (the longest piece of fiction I’ve seen in the magazine in a long time), Annie Proulx, Sherman Alexie, Ed Park, and — most surprising of all — Dashiell Hammett, one he wrote in the late 1920s, “An Inch and a Half of Glory.”
I enjoy it when The New Yorker gets a hold of a story by a long-deceased writer. Last August they published an almost forgotten story by F. Scott Fitzgerald (see my post here). Certainly Hammett’s name fits with the theme of this issue, but, strangely (or not, if you remember last year’s “science fiction” issue), the story itself does not, at least, not in any specific way that I can see.
At the story’s center is Earl Parish, a man of about thirty years. When the story begins, Earl is standing with a group of people looking at smoke coming out of a second-story window. One in the crowd sees a child up above that, looking out the window, puzzled, perhaps by the people below, but without fear. Everyone agrees the child is in no real danger: the smoke doesn’t suggest an imminent fire, and the fire department is already on its way.
But there is something about watching a confused child that makes one uneasy.
If the child had cried and beat the pane with its hands there would have been pain in looking at it, but not horror. A frightened child is a definite thing. The face at the window held its blankness over the men in the street like a poised club, racking them with the threat of a blow that did not fall.
A group of eight men, including Earl Parrish, go into the smokey building; seven come back out because the smoke is so bad. Earl stays, uncertain because now it looks maybe like he thought he was better than the other seven. They’d be upset if he went up to get the child, coming down looking like the hero when really it was just a bit of smoke. Then again, since he hesitated, he couldn’t go back out: “The men in the street, who no doubt had missed him by this time, would think he had lost courage after breaking faith with them.”
So we see that when this story begins Earl Parrish is an uncertain, unassuming man who helps a child who is in no real danger from a smokey building. The next day he got an inch and a half in the local paper.
That is all just set up. The story is actually about what that inch and a half of print does to Earl Parrish. At first the quiet man, who works in the information booth at the train station, is embarrassed when people talk to him about it, but after a few days they stop. Slightly relieved, he thinks they are just bored with the news. Then, when they refuse to talk about the fire even when he tries to slip it into a conversation, he decides envy is the true culprit, and the bulk of the story shows us what happens to this humble man become proud.
It’s a fun story, though much like the Fitzgerald story it’s pretty clear why it not only hasn’t been hailed as a classic in the eighty years since it was written but also why it was never published in the first place. The writing in and of itself is fine with some nice observations, particularly the parts that examine Earl Parrish’s humility or pride, but on the whole “An Inch and a Half of Glory” is an on-the-nose moralizing tale, complete with a spiritual baptism by fire, warning us to beware of pride.