The Ballad of the Sad Café by Carson McCullers The Library of America: Complete Novels (2001) Originally published in 1951 pp
I’m thrilled to keep this week’s theme all about loneliness, cafés, and loss, but let’s move from the stony streets of 1950s Paris to a “miserable main street only a hundred yards long” in the American south.
The Ballad of the Sad Café was originally published as a novella packaged with six short stories. This review concerns the title novella only, which I read in The Library of America’s Carson McCullers: Complete Novels (a helpful volume as I intend to read all of McCullers’ novels . . .). This particular story was originally dedicated to a composer named David Diamond, the best friend of McCullers and her husband James Reeves McCullers, Jr. While McCullers was working on this piece, Reeves abandoned her to commence a love affair with Diamond. When he found out the story was dedicated to him, Diamond returned the sentiment by setting music to McCullers’ poem “The Twisted Trinity.” I didn’t know any of this when I read The Ballad of the Sad Café, but I find it pertinent now.
In fact, I knew nothing about the story when I first opened it up. I was immediately drawn in, though, with one of those opening sections that I read three or four times before I actually go any further in the book. I love this section, which runs only a page or so. It introduces a town that appears absolutely inhospitable, with its “short and raw” winters and “summers white with glare and fiery hot.” The few buildings are in various stages of disrepair or straight condemnation.
The town itself is dreary; not much is there except the cotton mill, the two-room houses where the workers live, a few peach trees, a church with two colored windows, and a miserable main street only a hundred yards long. On Saturdays the tenants from the near-by farms come in for a day of talk and trade. Otherwise the town is lonesome, sad, and like a place that is far off and estranged from all other places in the world.
Despite its current state and though now essentially forgotten, the buildings suggest the town once held happiness and hope. It’s a terrible, powerful visual picture of the lost dreams of youth regarded cynically in bitter old age.
In this brief introduction we meet a shadowy character who every so often moves the curtain and looks out the window of one of the homes. McCullers describes this character in the grotesque:
It is a face like the terrible dim faces known in dreams — sexless and white, with two gray crossed eyes which are turned inward so sharply that they seem to be exchanging with each other one long and secret gaze of grief.
The bulk of the story takes place back in time, in better days, when the cross-eyed person, a woman, it turns out, named Miss Amelia, was part of a larger social community. Miss Amelia was strong willed, though still a bit strange. She had married a man, once, one of the most awful men you can imagine who had completely pacified himself in his pursuit of Miss Amelia, but she soon sent him on his way. When the story begins, she is an able single woman.
One day, her hunch-backed, diminutive cousin, Lymon, comes to town and moves in with Miss Amelia. The town waits anxiously to see what will happen. After a few days, a group of men, working under a swarm of rumors, goes to Miss Amelia’s to see if anything bad has happened. What they find when they get there is inexplicable: Miss Amelia has taken Cousin Lymon in and cares for his needs with the deep devotion of a mother or a lover. She seems happy, so happy, in fact, that when the men come in she serves them some food and a new business begins: Miss Amelia has become the proprietor of a small café.
Things turn for the worse when her husband, Marvin Macy, returns to town with vengeance on his mind. Cousin Lymon is fascinated by the brutal man, and so Macy leverages his position over Miss Amelia. A lot of action goes on behind doors, and we sit with the community waiting for something truly ugly to take place.
The Ballad of the Sad Café turns out to be a slightly comic tragedy where living in pain seems better than living alone. This is reflected in one of its greatest lines:
Once you have lived with another, it is a great torture to have to live alone. The silence of a firelit room when suddenly the clock stops ticking, the nervous shadows in an empty house — it is better to take in your mortal enemy than face the terror of living alone.