For my seventeenth birthday, my dad gave me a slim copy of Point of Departure, a slim collection of nineteen stories of adolescence. That was back when you could buy a paperback for a buck and a half, read the book over and over, and the pages wouldn’t fall out. Thirty years later, I still have this book. Some of these stories I read over so many times, I could reiterate passages. “A Summer’s Reading” pointed me to Bernard Malamud. Even though I didn’t grow up in a city, I could envision myself, like the main character, George, skulking around the nighttime summer streets. Updike’s “A&P”? What I wouldn’t have given to have sashayed through those aisles.
At seventeen, I was fortunate to have the world seem so inherently possible. The options for my life were so manifold and mysterious, and, frankly, much like my own adolescent daughter now, I couldn’t wait to step into my future.
But two scenes in these stories resonated most powerfully, and tonight I found them immediately. One was in a Saroyan story, “Seventeen.” At the story’s end, the mother calls to the father that their son is crying. The boy had a profound experience of grief and uncertainty — “the impossibility of laughter” — and the mother realizes their son is entering adulthood. The second scene concludes the Nadine Gordimer story, “A Company of Laughing Faces.”
The girl heard, but felt no impulse to tell her mother — knew, in fact, that she would never have the need to tell anyone the knowledge that had held her secure since the moment she looked down into the lagoon: the sight, there, was the one real happening of the holiday, the one truth and the one beauty.
This one truth and one beauty, assuredly, is not a photo-opt view of the Grand Canyon or a rosy sunset; the girl discovers a drowned boy in a lagoon. These stories center on adolescents who experience a complex shift in paradigm, from childhood’s relatively cosseted innocence to the substantially more dynamic range of adulthood. Yet, in each of these nineteen stories thrums the heartthrob of beauty.
That’s my two cents on the appeal of literature: relentless quest for wisdom suffused all the way through — even when it aches — with beauty.